Representatives of French corporate giants Michelin and Auchan visited the Skolkovo innovation centre on Tuesday to meet with Russian startups that could help them to keep their businesses innovative in an event organised together with French Tech Moscow and Business France.

Benoit Membré, director of Bivouac France, tells Russian startups about his incubator's approach. Photo:

Forty-five hi-tech startups were selected for private meetings with the French companies from about 120 that applied to take part. The startups included many residents of the Skolkovo Foundation, as well as startups supported by the Internet Initiatives Development Foundation (FRII) and Go Tech, another foundation aimed at developing technology in Russia.

“We are looking to open ourselves to startups and innovation,” said Arèche Alamir, innovations director at Auchan Russia, noting that Auchan was the first store to introduce self-service checkouts in Russia. He said his department within the global hypermarket chain focuses on innovations in payments and transactions, ecommerce and digital technologies, among other areas.

Pierre-Yves Jeanne, Michelin’s business development director in Russia, said the company’s focus is on mobility. The French tyre manufacturer is on the lookout for any innovations that can enhance mobility, such as the Internet of Things or technology that helps them to communicate with their customers, he said.

“Russia has young, talented personnel, it has the human potential for innovation,” said Jeanne.

“We are open to all proposals in these areas, and are ready to experiment,” he added.

Rice into tyres

Among the Russian startups hoping to convince Michelin that their technology could help the company was Risilica, a resident of Skolkovo’s energy cluster that has developed a technology to turn rice husks into amorphous silica dioxide.

“Amorphous silica dioxide has many uses,” Risilica’s CEO Sergey Pisarenko told ahead of his meeting with Michelin representatives.

“One of the main markets for it is tyres. Companies like Pirelli already use it, and we’re interested in talking to Michelin about cooperation and what modifications of our material would suit their needs,” he explained.

Risilica’s technology is ecologically friendly, and is also cheaper than other methods of producing amorphous silica dioxide.

“Any tyre-making company is a major potential client, and if we are able to do something interesting together [with Michelin], then in the future, they will be able to move over to ecologically clean amorphous silica dioxide,” said Pisarenko.

“We’ve discovered an interesting use for our material in paint, and we’d like to work with the tyre industry too,” he added. Amorphous silica dioxide is also used in toothpaste, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, among other things.

Risilica agreed with a Chinese partner earlier this year to build an amorphous silica dioxide factory in China that will use its technology. It is currently in negotiations over the building of plants in Russia and Vietnam, Pisarenko told 

Arèche Alamir, innovations director at Auchan Russia, reminded the audience that the French hypermarket chain was the first to introduce self-service checkouts in Russia. Photo:

Robot consultants

Another Skolkovo startup, Nanosemantics, was due to meet with representatives of Auchan to present its technology, which uses artificial intelligence to create internet chatbots to provide customer service.

For Auchan, Nanosemantics’ technology could be used to create a smart chatbot for the retail giant’s website that can answer questions about the store’s selection of goods, locations, prices, questions about services, exchanges – anything that customers might ask, Arkady Sandler, CEO of Nanosemantics, told ahead of his meeting with Auchan.

“Real people and operators are very expensive to engage in long chats with customers, but the cost of a robot’s conversation is nothing,” he explained.

“You get a level of brand engagement that companies can’t afford if they are only using people to process communications from customers,” added Sandler, whose company already counts a number of large retailers and service providers among its clients.

“Some companies try to create their own chatbots, but they do it without natural language processing, and without an artificial intelligence basis, but we use both – we have been doing this for a long time, it’s our specialty and we provide a full-blown conversation,” he said.

Nanosemantics also has smartbots operating in other languages around the former Soviet Union, including Kazakh, Ukrainian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz. The company is currently adding the Georgian language to its portfolio, said Sandler.

The French way 

One of the startups at Tuesday's event preparing to reveal their product, mysteriously concealed in bubble wrap. Photo:

The startups also heard from Frédéric Fourié, programme director of Michelin’s European incubators. Fourie reminded the audience that Michelin itself was once a startup. Now the company has its own internal startups, and has also invested in external startups in the U.S. and China, he said. It partners with Le Bivouac incubator to help promising companies.

“We’re here to help David [in this case, startups] against Goliath,” said Benoit Membré, director of Bivouac France.

Unlike many tech industry events for startups, when companies are given a strict limit of five minutes to pitch their projects, Bivouac allows startups to make two-day pitches, to enable potential investors to get a decent idea of the company’s idea and prospects, said Membré.

The incubator also turns the pitch system upside down, and instead of startups always pitching to companies, it also allows companies to pitch their needs to startups to give them the chance to come up with solutions to their requirements, he explained.

French Tech Moscow was launched at the beginning of this year at the Skolkovo innovation centre during a visit by France’s then-Minister for Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, Emmanuel Macron.

The programme, part of the government-led French Tech initiative launched to support innovation and entrepreneurship, aims to open the door to French startups that want to expand onto the Russian market.

Like the original launch, Tuesday’s event was hosted by the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), which is currently in the process of setting up a retail centre focusing on digital transactions.

Pavel Boyko, who is to head the centre, told that his mission is to help apply the fundamental knowledge at Skoltech about machine learning, IoT, robotics and other related areas to the practical sphere of retail.