Aix Marseille Provence atop pillars of innovation

“You’re using all your savings in the bank to take a bet on your future. Your thinking: ‘Okay, I’m going to try this one, but if it doesn’t work, I’m going to be bankrupt in one year,” says Franck Araujo, and he would know.

Araujo pushed entrepreneurship at Aix Marseille’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry for 14 years before becoming CEO of Accelerator M. Now, he works with people for whom the stakes are higher still: African entrepreneurs looking to launch their businesses in Aix Marseille Provence, The 2023 Capital of Innovation.

‘Igniting Innovation’ is the title of the Eurocities Economic Development Forum 2023, this 22-24 March, where cities across Europe and representatives from the European Commission and European Investment Bank will share their approaches to fostering sustainable businesses and entrepreneurship. Aix Marseille Provence Metropolitan Area provides a striking example of just how effective cities can be in making innovation come to life.

Accelerating talent

Accelerator M, run by the metropolitan authority, is just one part of a vast ecosystem of accelerators, incubators, science parks and actors from the local government, academia and the private sector that have helped Aix Marseille Provence win the esteemed iCapital award. “At Accelerator M, we built partnerships with similar structures in Africa and create pathways for our innovators to engage the market there and theirs to start up successfully here,” Araujo explains.

We built partnerships with similar structures in Africa
— Franck Araujo
Aix Marseille
Aix Marseille

This kind of reciprocity is a cornerstone of innovation in Aix Marseille, explains Delphine Lapray, Director of Innovation and Higher Education Research of the metropolitan area. Without this, it would be nearly impossible for the city to fuel synergies between the more than 40 individual organisations working on innovation locally.

“Accelerator M is one of our municipally founded accelerators,” Lapray explains, “then we have incubators run by private companies, like L’Occitane’s ‘Obratory’ or CMA-CGM’s ‘Zebox,’ and we have a lot of work done by arms of the university.” There are also national and regional programmes for innovation which the authority links into. All of these bodies can be convinced to work together because they all have something to gain from each other.

Breeding innovation

A simple example is the collaboration between African entrepreneurs from Accelerator M and the Aix Marseille University. PhD students who team up with the entrepreneurs can use academic research to help entrepreneurs move their businesses forward, but the researchers then use the new businesses as case studies to gather more academic insights for the university.

Meanwhile the businesses, in creating better economic outcomes for themselves through innovation, also help employees and collaborators to upskill and improve their employment prospects. And for Aix Marseille Provence Metropolitan Area itself, the innovation ecosystem is a ripe field for solving challenges in services like waste management, water treatment, housing or mobility that fall within its daily responsibilities to deliver.

The first action is to make them work together
— Delphine Lapray

However, it’s not enough to have reasons to collaborate on innovation – you also need a catalyst. This is what the metropolitan authority provides. “The first action is to make them work together and share a common roadmap,” Lapray says. “We worked together through issue-focused workshops to cowrite roadmaps around topics important for Aix Marseille.”

One such issue is connections with Africa, others include gender inequality, ecological transition, and social innovation. Within each of these areas, Aix Marseille seeks to promote user-friendly services for companies, links between start-ups and big companies, and marketing and territorial attractiveness.

Spaces of engagement

Bringing all the local innovation actors together to design these roadmaps ensured a united vision for the direction of innovation in the territory, but it also meant that all the major players had the chance to meet each other and understand each other’s approach, drivers and capacities, leading to new ways of working together.

This is something quite unique in Aix Marseille Provence.
— Delphine Lapray

Aix Marseille also uses the online world to foster collaborative innovation. “Our city platform outlines local needs and provides opportunities for innovators to contribute to these fields,” Lapray says.

Despite the importance of the online world, physical space also has a vital role. “We worked with Aix Marseille University to jointly create the ‘City of Knowledge and Innovation Aix Marseille,’ a location that houses public, private and academic accelerators and innovation-focused organisations, so they’re all literally at each other’s doorstep,” Lapray says, “this is something quite unique in Aix Marseille Provence.”


What does the process of supporting innovation actually look like? Araujo shares the example of a Tunisian entrepreneur, Walid Mzoughi, who has gone from a man with an idea to a successful CEO. His product, ‘Winshot,’ helps retail chains maintain a consistent brand across their many outlets.

Mzoughi first came to Aix Marseille for the territory’s Emerging Valley event, which gathers new talents from France and Africa. The event is a moment for these African businessmen to see what connections and opportunities could be available to them in Aix Marseille.

Sold at the prospect of launching his business there, he was given a ‘soft landing,’ four weeks in the metropolitan area to familiarise himself with the business ecosystem. This adventure was financed by Anima, a network of French and African entrepreneurs and investors.

Regional and national support

Mzoughi then got another boost for his business with a €20,000 grant from Région Sud Attractivité. At this stage, he has the metropolitan area, civil society and a regional body cooperating with each other and him to bring his idea to fruition. At Accelerator M, set up by the Aix Marseille Provence and its local university, Mzoughi teams up with researchers to receive coaching and support, and to present his business as a case study for researchers.

He’s creating jobs here after just one year
— Franck Araujo

“Now it’s going really well,” says Araujo, “he’s signed his first retail clients here in France, including the huge telecommunications company Orange, and he has recruited French employees, so he’s creating jobs here after just one year.”

Thanks to a national initiative, the ‘founders visa,’ Mzoughi can operate in France for at least the next four years, and will soon be joined by his family in Aix Marseille. To get this visa he just needed official recognition of his startup as an innovative one, something that Accelerator M was happy to provide.

Pillars of innovation

“The Mediterranean-African hub is very specific to Aix Marseille. We have a very vibrant ecosystem embedded in people that have a diverse culture,” says Nicolas Regrigny, Director for Attractiveness and European International Relations at Aix Marseille Provence. Nonetheless, Regrigny stresses that this this link with Africa, and even the field of economic development, are only one sliver of the sphere of innovation which radiates through this year’s iCapital.

We have a very vibrant ecosystem embedded in people that have a diverse culture
— Nicolas Regrigny

“Innovation is many things at many places and points in our metropole,” Regrigny says, “Our mission is to construct a meta-ecosystem of innovation, federating many ecosystems. Social economy, organisational structures, these are all benefiting from innovation.”

Lapray is just as emphatic. For Aix Marseille Provence, innovation has three pillars, she says. The first is societal impact: “Innovation allows us to tackle the energy transition, the digital transition and the environmental transition.” The second is economic impact, “Innovation accelerates economic development and business,” Lapray says.

Innovation allows us to tackle the energy transition, the digital transition and the environmental transition.
— Delphine Lapray

“The third pillar of innovation is transformation of our organisations,” she explains, “to help us and our 8,500 employees, as well as the other organisations in our territory to operate more holistically and more effectively.”

With massive urban sprawl and highly populated coastal cities, the Mediterranean basin is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global challenges that threaten both people and our ecosystem. Mounted atop these three pillars of innovation, Aix Marseille Provence Metropolitan Area is rising to meet these challenges head on.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer