Perspectives on starting-up in France from eBlink founder, Alain Rolland

29 June 2015

4iP Council explores the experience of French telecom start-up EBlink as it markets a ground breaking mobile antennae solution to global tech giants.

Paris based start-up EBlink has patented a new technology called ‘Wireless Fronthaul’ that enables telecom operators to connect mobile antennae without using cables. With the mobile fronthaul market in high growth and estimated at $30 billion* EBlink’s solution promises to yield high returns for investors. The company was nominated for the Mobile World Congress Best Mobile Infrastructure Award 2015, and has been invited to participate in the French Government’s Plan de Souveraineté for Télécom. 4iP Council spoke to Alain Rolland, the company’s Founder and CEO.

EBlink meets French Minister of State, Axelle Lemaire

How did the idea for Wireless Fronthaul come about?

I’d been working in the industry for over 10 years prior to founding EBlink in 2005, and had witnessed the limitations of traditional base station deployment. At one point I was involved with a dozen different projects that had all been stopped due to problems related to cable installation. It occurred to me then that the obvious solution would be a wireless alternative to cable, but the challenge was to develop a wireless system with sufficient broadband capacity. I created EBlink to develop this technology, and we conceived the wireless fronthaul solution to pick up where fiber leaves off. The name “EBlink” reflects the wireless base station link provided by our solutions, as well as the rapidity of its installation. (“in a blink”).

How did you take the idea from a concept to reality?

First of all we needed financing for research & development, so that was our starting point. I patented the idea in Europe, and later extended the patents to cover other key international markets. Things began to accelerate once we obtained patents in the US. The whole process cost a lot – over 200,000 euros, - especially due to satellite patents around the original idea - but it gave us the ability to raise more money.

The other crucial step was of course putting together a solid R&D team, with some of the best engineers in the field.

Have you had issues with product copying?

We have a very advanced technology that is complex to reproduce, which gives us a head start of several years. Copying is a real issue though, and I understand why many technology companies are concerned about it. Another concern for small companies is the harmful effect of patent litigation on innovative R&D. I recently read a report from Rutgers** about the impact of this phenomenon on small firms in the US. It implies that patent-holders can use litigation as a way to deter or stifle small, innovative competitors. I think that policies favouring collaboration between large and small companies, as opposed to a weakening of the patent system, would help mitigate this practice in Europe.

How does EBlink contribute to the French economy?

We based the company in France in order to leverage our connections with French telecom market players, and the majority of our employees are in France.

Our production is also French based, in Brittany and Normandy. Beyond economic questions, the low carbon footprint of our solution addresses significant environmental issues; from the moment an operator moves away from cabling toward wireless solutions, the carbon emissions are significantly lowered.

We’re still in our infancy and are working actively to grow our business. One reason EBlink joined the French Government’s “Plan de Souveraineté Télécom” alongside Alcatel-Lucent, Orange, Thales and others is not only to shape conditions in favour of start-up growth, but also to facilitate their evolution into small and medium sized enterprises. It’s very important that we develop the ecosystem and help start-ups commercialise their inventions and grow.

How do you think the French government could help start-ups grow?

Start-ups can’t function in a vacuum; it takes a “village” or ecosystem of industry players. There are some helpful entities out there, like the government-backed association Systematic, which works to promote synergies between SMEs and large groups, and leverage innovation in France.

Unfortunately, today’s ecosystem is far from ideal, with structural problems resulting in a “silo” effect that hinders real cooperation between small and large companies. As an example: the average time it takes a French start-up to establish a solid commercial relationship with a big group is 3 years. Needless to say, a start-up could die 50 times over during that period.

Today it’s essential that France move from a strategy of communication towards a strategy of action. For the big industrials, this means evolving and putting in place incentives for successful commercial collaboration with start-ups and SMEs. For politicians, it means realising that the decisions they make today will determine the projects of tomorrow.

What advice would offer a European inventor today?

If you are an entrepreneur, protect your idea quickly. Then think about the business model and where you can get the financing needed to build your business. If appropriate funding seems to be a long shot in your own country, consider early on that it may be better to look elsewhere.

Another option is to join incubators or research institutes like the Leti in Grenoble. Belonging to a collective group can provide benefits in terms of advice, creativity and connections. Then develop your business plan, and pinpoint where you need to start.

*Lightcounting; Ovum.
** Does patent litigation reduce corporate R&D? An analysis of US public firms. R. Smeets, Rutgers, April 2014.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.