Europe’s aerospace hub is a thriving, synergistic blend of industry giants, start-ups and research centres. It is gaining even more prominence as a futuristic supersonic train project sets up shop in the neighbourhood.
This year began on an upbeat note for Toulouse. At the end of January, California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced that it was opening its European research centre in this vibrant city in the south of France. The company plans to invest €37 million and create 50 direct jobs as it builds Elon Musk’s futuristic transportation system.
Toulouse was not a random choice. The city is known as the hub of Europe’s aeronautics and aerospace industry. “Toulouse was a natural choice for us, as we are surrounded by our partners here”, says Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of HTT. “The talent pool in the region makes it possible for us to recruit some of the best minds” to help develop Hyperloop, a train of levitating capsules that will travel in low-pressure tubes at a speed of 1,200 km/h.
From Saint-Exupéry to Galileo
The high concentration of aeronautics and aerospace companies in the Toulouse region dates to World War I, when the French government tasked entrepreneur Pierre-Georges Latécoère with developing aeroplanes at Montaudran, an industrial site where train cars had previously been manufactured. Aéropostale was born in Montaudran in the 1920s, with an air route to Africa and then to Latin America, adventures that were made famous by pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
On the cutting edge of the Internet of Things
Among Toulouse’s start-ups, Sigfox is undoubtedly the most notable recent success. Founded in 2010, the company has its niche in the Internet of Things. Its technology uses a low bandwidth Internet connection that is both inexpensive and energy-efficient. It specialises in objects that transmit small amounts of data, such as a breakdown or temperature alert. The Sigfox network includes over 10 million objects in 32 countries – and it’s just getting started. In November 2016, it raised €150 million – France’s largest fundraiser in 2016 – and expects to expand to 60 countries by 2018.
Toulouse’s legendary contributions include the supersonic Concorde aeroplane, the giant Airbus A380, the European satellite navigation system Galileo and the Philae landing craft. Airbus is headquartered here, with 27,000 employees, as is industry heavyweight Thales Alenia Space. In total, Toulouse’s aeronautics industry comprises 700 companies and 85,000 employees, and its space industry 400 companies and 12,000 employees.
Toulouse is also a mecca of highly reputed research centres, including the National Space Studies Centre French Aerospace Research Centre, and the CNRS Analysis and Systems Architecture Laboratory. The city will host the EuroScience Open Forum, Europe’s largest interdisciplinary science meeting in the summer of 2018, welcoming more than 4,000 delegates from 80 countries and 35,000 participants. With a student population of 130,000, it is the second largest university city in France after Paris. It has also welcomed several start-ups over the last few years, particularly in the areas of mobility, drones and the Internet of Things.
Today, the city’s dynamic spirit is still closely tied to the space and aviation industries. Montaudran’s historic runways and taxiways, abandoned after Air France’s maintenance activities left the area in the 1990s, are now the site of a new complex called “Toulouse Aerospace”, which will include an innovation hub focused on aeronautics, aerospace and embedded systems.
“Our goal is to bring together researchers, students, companies and start-ups all in one place to connect all the players of the ecosystem”, explains Emilion Esnault, mayor of Montaudran, who is also a trained engineer. “But it will also be a great place to live, with lodging, cultural offerings, a public garden and sports facilities. Eventually the space will be able to welcome 7,000 employees and 3,000 residents.”
The site is relying heavily on Toulouse-based innovations, right down to the street lamps, which use technology from local start-up Kawantech. Network sensors installed in each lamp analyse objects moving in the vicinity. The sensors communicate with each other to adapt the intensity of the light based on what is perceived in the road, whether it be it a car, pedestrian or a tree branch. “With this system, we can save 75% in energy costs compared to a traditional LED lighting system”, says Esnault.
The Antoine de Saint Exupéry Institute of Technology, created four years ago as part of a public-private partnership, will be the next to join Toulouse Aerospace. Connections between research and industry are once again at the forefront: “We’re bringing 250 people from industry – employees from companies such as Airbus and Safran who are usually sent on assignment for three years – together with researchers from the academic side”, says director Ariel Sirat. “We are currently working with about 50 PhD students and post-docs who each have two scientists supervising them.”
Materials are a major focus of effort in the aeronautics industry. “We are trying to reduce weight and manufacturing costs, while also improving functionality”, says Sirat. “For example, one of our projects is to reduce the fusion temperature for heat-hardened and thermoplastic materials that are commonly used in the industry. Another is in surface treatments, developing a robotic painter that can cover curved surfaces such as aeroplane fuselages.”
Airbus BizLab, created by Airbus in 2015, is another standout in the Toulouse innovation ecosystem. The innovation accelerator is home to both Airbus employees and start-ups from around the world. “The goal was not just to encourage our employees to take risks again, but also to benefit from the knowledge and creativity of young entrepreneurs from outside the company”, says director Bruno Gutierres. “With this mix of people, start-ups can better understand the demands of the industry and Airbus employees can have a true entrepreneurial experience. Aeronautics and aeroplane design is not a typical arena for start-ups. The companies we work with are primarily focused on service-based or computer-based projects.” Shortly after the first Airbus BizLab began, two others opened in Hamburg and Bangalore.
For Airbus, the experience appears to have paid off. As an example, Gutierres mentions Uwinloc, a company that participated in the first programme and has since signed a contract with the aeronautics group. The Toulouse- based start-up developed a low-cost technology for indoor geolocalisation that set itself apart from the competition by using battery-free smart labels. “The labels are only 30 centimetres long and can be affixed to very small objects”, explains Gutierres. “They can be used to track and quickly find spare parts, even in a huge hangar. It saves a lot of time!”
By Sophie Gaitzsch