When industry and academia collide: Opportunities in Francophone countries

You can still form collaborations with just English, but your ability to socialise, even in a scientific setting, would be greatly extended if you speak French Tarik Möröy, Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal

While English is the dominant scientific language, French-speaking countries still offer some advantage for career advancement.

Conversations en français echo through the halls and laboratories of research institutions stretching from the streets of Hanoi to the temperate shores of Lake Geneva. With more than 220 million speakers in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa, French is one of world's the most widely spoken languages. In the EU alone, it is the second most widely used.

Scientists open to an international career should not discount the funding, employment and educational opportunities in the Francophone region, especially at the interface between industry, academia and innovation. Obviously, every researcher must speak English to progress their career. However, in Francophone countries, learning the local language can make the difference between surviving and thriving, both socially and professionally.

Proximity to industry is key

Many career opportunities in French-speaking countries depend on collaborations between industry and academia. The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland is a prime example. In addition to a requirement that their bachelor and master's degree students complete internships in industry, the campus hosts more than 120 companies at the EPFL Innovation Park.

“We like to call our campus an ecosystem for innovation and technology transfer,” says Lionel Pousaz, Head of Media and Communication Services at EPFL. Educated to appreciate the benefits of industry, “EPFL graduates don't encounter a lot of problems with unemployment.” In total, the EPFL Innovation Park should create more than 2,000 jobs.

Many businesses that have bases at EPFL — including Nestlé, Logitech and Peugeot-Citroën — have French-speaking founders. Nestlé has also partnered with other Francophone academic institutions, like the Graduate School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of Paris (ESP CI ParisTech) in France.

Other Francophone institutions, such as the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) and the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute Research Centre (IUCPQ), both in Canada, also emphasize the value of proximity for successful collaborations that transfer to industry. “The development of PCSK9 [an enzyme that plays a part in cholesterol balance] as a drug target by our basic researchers would not have been as efficient if it weren't for the cardiovascular clinicians from IUCPQ just one floor down,” says Tarik Möröy, President and Scientific Director at IRCM.

It also helps that IRCM, like many research institutions, has a technology transfer office in the same building as its research labs. “This office works to protect our intellectual property rights [in general] and contact representatives from industry for commercialization,” says Möröy. “Without them, a lot of discoveries [from basic research] wouldn't see the light of application [to industry].” Möröy also points out that not only do these transfer offices directly employ PhD-level scientists with knowledge of patent laws and the needs of industry, but they also facilitate innovation that creates new jobs for researchers.

Francophone Canada

For researchers seeking employment in Quebec, it is important to know that current province laws require companies with 50 or more employees to use French in the workplace, monitored by the Conseil supérieur de la langue française, the province's language advisory body, as reported in Canada's Globe & Mail. “In my career I have seen the French language take vast strides forward in its use in science, the healthcare sector and industry in Quebec,” says William Fraser, Scientific Director of the Sherbrooke University Hospital Research Centre (CHUS) in Canada. “You can survive on just English in Quebec, but not thrive,” adds Möröy. “You can still form collaborations with just English, but your ability to socialise, even in a scientific setting, would be greatly extended if you speak French.”

Collaborations with industry are expected to lead to new job openings at CHUS, says Fraser. After the centre formalises a partnership with Charles River Laboratories, a US biopharma contract research support company, CHUS hopes that this will create positions for people with expertise in imaging – one of the centre's strengths.

For the links between academia and industry to significantly impact the Canadian economy, Fraser believes federal and regional governments have to play a larger role. Indirect support through tax credits for innovation, for example, is not enough. Instead, he thinks the government could become directly involved by backing networking opportunities between academic, industrial and clinical researchers. Such initiatives have proven to result in job creation in other countries.

A helping hand

Specifically the regional government of Wallonia in Belgium, connects industry, academia, clinics and hospitals through the health and medical biotechnology cluster BioWin. “BioWin is a tool that can help reindustrialize the economy in Wallonia by creating jobs, boosting existing companies and creating new ones,” says Frédéric Druck, BioWin's Managing Director ad interim, based in Gosselies.

BioWin has many educational initiatives for academics to gain the skills they need to find jobs in industry. Some of its programmes are being licensed out to other Francophone regions, like Quebec. The cluster also has strong links to companies and laboratories in Rhône-Alps, the second most important region in France for research and innovation. “BioWin has led to the creation of more than 6,000 jobs since 2005 – a little more than half of which are working direcdy in GSK laboratories,” says Vincent Brichard, Senior Vice President and Head of the Immunotherapeutics Business Unit at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Vaccines in Wavre. “And then there's funding for academic research on top of that.” The BioWin cluster also includes other large pharma companies like UCB and Baxter.

Partnerships abound

Working within a project supported by a partnership between industry and academia could help boost career prospects. Indeed, this type of research provides insights into the constraints and demands associated with industry work, while retaining the flexibility of an academic setting. Such partnerships are plentiful within the Francophone region. For example, Danone Nutricia Research, associated with Danone, the French food-products multinational corporation, has a longstanding partnership with France's private, non-profit Pasteur Institute, a leader in immunology and microbiology research. In 2009, Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company also partnered with Euroscreen, a Belgian bio-pharmaceutical company, which is a start-up of the Free University of Brussels.

Partnerships within academia have also flourished in the past few decades. Back in 2008, for example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) partnered with France's National Research Agency (ANR). They funded joint research projects to strengthen ties between Canadian and French academia and industry.

Since then, Luxembourg's National Research Fund (FNR) has formed a similar partnership with ANR, as well as Belgian and Swiss funding agencies. The partnering leader, however, remains France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) with collaborations in Europe, Africa and Asia – from the National Centre for Scientific and Technical Research (CNRST) in Rabat, Morocco, to the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), in Hanoi.

French in developing countries

The EPFL Innovation Park. Credit: ALAIN HERZOG / EPFL

The ability to speak French can also be beneficial when trying to establish academic and industrial collaborations in developing countries (see French: A vehicle for innovation). This is especially true for a continent like Africa, which is in need of innovation and has the largest number of French-speakers in the world. Project co-operation is possible in French-speaking Africa if you only speak English, says EPFL's Pousaz. “But if you want to transfer your knowledge and technology to local people – how to run and fix a machine in a hospital – using French makes the process much easier and more efficient.”

While it's true that more than 98 percent of scientific research articles are written in English, French publications, still have a place. According to an article in Science & Society, to increase access to publications written in their native tongue, French journals give researchers in Francophone developing countries free access to papers published in French in the agricultural, human and social sciences – disciplines in which France is exceptionally strong. This also maintains a form of cultural connection within these emerging economies, who might become partners in future collaborations. In a nutshell, this means that “language opens a lot of doors,” notes Pousaz. And Möröy concurs: “the more languages you speak, the larger your horizon.”

French: A vehicle for innovation

There is no human endeavor about which the saying, ‘two heads are better than one’, is more true than innovation. A case in point is the Francophone Network of Excellence in Engineering Sciences (RESCIF), a consortium that uses shared Francophone culture as an instrument to facilitate joint technological innovation in emerging and developed countries. An initiative proposed by EPFL in 2010 and backed by the Swiss government, the consortium links researchers at 14 Francophone universities in 11 countries.

A University Research Centre on Energy for Health Care PhD student working on a power stabilization system in Cameroon for hospitals on the African grid. Credit: CURES YAOUNDÉ: ESSENTIALTECH/CODEV/EPFL

“The term co-development is very important to RESCIF,” says Philippe Gillet, Head of RESCIF and Vice-President of EPFL. “If we give emerging countries the tools needed for innovation, their unique solutions will help developed countries solve similar problems as well.”

Through educational and research initiatives and contributions from industrial partners, RESCIF focuses on technological innovation related to water, energy and food safety. In Cameroon, for example, researchers from EPFL, the National School of Engineering (ENSP) in Yaoundé and the Polytechnic School of Montreal in Canada collaborate at the University Research Centre on Energy for Health Care. This centre aims to identify and solve issues related to electricity insecurity in health care centres and hospitals with innovation specifically adapted for developing countries. RESCIF has also created a similar research centre that links partners in France, Switzerland, Canada and Vietnam, concerning water safety.

RESCIF has only been going for four years, but its lofty goals could have a significant impact. Ultimately the consortium aims to contribute to creating innovation centres within universities in emerging countries. “If we can help set up ecosystems where academic research labs, start-ups and large companies interact – just like at EPFL – then RESCIF will be a success,” concludes Gillet.