Aix-Marseille: an alternative to capital cities to set up shop, grow and innovate

Aix-Marseille: an alternative to capital cities to set up shop, grow and innovate
Reception of a group of journalists from the national press and foreign correspondents in the CMA-CGM Tower
01 April 2021 / invest in provence

Discovering the economic assets of Aix-Marseille during a press trip

Aix-Marseille is a great alternative to Europe's business capitals for many reasons. The metropolitan area combines quality of life and affordable real estate with strong potential and hyper-connectivity ‒ advantages that are winning over more and more companies. On March 24 and 25, 2021, leaders of French and foreign businesses explained to the national press and foreign correspondents why they left San Francisco, Paris and London. Investors talked about their experiences and ideas, as well as their successful investments in Provence. The event was organized by Provence Promotion with several of its partners* in the framework of an influence program aiming to promote the region's flagship projects, its world-renowned economic powerhouses and the newcomers shaping its future.

Against the backdrop of the Parisian lockdown, the Aix campaign is a ray of light in these first days of spring. Provence Promotion, the economic development agency for Aix-Marseille, invited a dozen journalists from national media outlets ‒ including two foreign correspondents ‒ to spend two days learning about the ground swell in European business capitals causing enterprise to move to regional hubs. The wave of business migration intensified with the public health crisis.

"What is the point of spending €25,000 per month to rent offices in Paris?"

What is the point of spending €25,000 per month to rent offices in Paris when employees are teleworking from their 200 ft2 apartments? The idea that a company should be headquartered in Paris at any price has fallen out of favor, especially since the first lockdown. "Our clients are entrepreneurs, 80% of whom are based outside Paris. With the same salary outside the capital, employees have a more comfortable lifestyle, which helps us retain talent," observed Anaïs Prétot, co-founder of Live Mentor, on March 25. In September 2020, her online coaching company transferred its head office from Paris to Aix-en-Provence with a core team of 20; since then, 18 jobs have been filled locally.

Escaping Brexit, fleeing Silicon Valley

For their first stop on the two-day press junket, the journalists met at thecamp, the only open innovation hub of its kind in France, where major corporations (Sodexo, La Poste, SNCF, Accor, Accenture and more) can interact with start-ups. Gathered in the site's verdant theater flaunting its futuristic architecture, the journalists were able to talk with Jean Viry-Babel, Founder and CEO of xRapid. The Apple spin-off based in Cupertino and London uprooted its R&D center from Great Britain and relocated it to France in the wake of the 2016 referendum. "We lost €100,000 in foreign exchange reserves, our shareholders got scared," Jean Viry-Babel recounted. "Marseille made the short list, then was ultimately chosen because of the breadth of its medical ecosystem, the presence of a teaching hospital and well-known researchers. We reinforced our connection with the APHM. We have a subsidiary in the United States and are preparing for a second opening in Asia," noted Jean Viry-Babel. After designing an automated malaria diagnostic system, xRapid developed a respiratory assistance mask.

While many French companies think of Silicon Valley as an El Dorado, the start-up Bovlabs left San Francisco for Provence to preserve its independence thanks to a different take on start-up financing. "We created a virtuous, peer-to-peer energy transfer system. The Provence region was the perfect launching pad. We were able to develop our technology at thecamp and work with the Aix TGV high-speed train station to test our innovation. Here, we have access to big groups with major commercial potential," enthused Cédric Christensen, co-founder of Bovlabs. The thirty-something Texan, who moved with his wife and children, compares the climate to California. "We did not want Paris or Brussels. Here, the calanques are just 20 minutes away by bike," Cédric Christensen reported.

Marseille, second-largest connectivity hub in France after Paris

The press junket continued to the port district around the Grand Port Maritime de Marseille, where the American group Digital Realty, parent company of Interxion, has invested in three data centers with a fourth ‒ MRS4 ‒ under construction. Just like goods and passengers, data also crosses our seas and oceans, arriving at seaports. Currently, 14 submarine cables converge at Marseille for a total of 154 terabits, and the city is expected to climb from ninth to fifth place in the worldwide ranking by 2025. At the confluence of submarine and land networks, Interxion's data centers consolidate Big Tech's data. The health crisis is accelerating the digitalization of the economy. "In Europe, France is the only country with two internationally significant connectivity hubs," emphasized Fabrice Coquio, Director for France, Interxion. That ecosystem is expected to expand, build wealth and create 1,000 jobs with the digital campus project backed by Kevin Polizzi, director of the B-to-B branch of the Iliad Group. Marseille's connectivity is also enhanced by the density of airline connections and the abundance of its maritime offerings. As the leading cargo hub outside greater Paris and France's largest port by tonnage, Marseille is home to the "brain community" of start-ups inventing a greener, more smoothly operated port.  

47 nationalities at CMA CGM

Marseille is also the springboard for CMA CGM's growth with a worldwide headquarters not located in a business capital but that keeps it at the top of the container shipping industry. The shipping company, founded in 1978 by Jacques Saadé, invested in seafront construction in 2003 and again in 2011, bringing forth a new skyline for the Marseille Euroméditerranée business district. To attract talent, CMA CGM has continuously promoted its employer brand from Marseille by forging its own ecosystem: it opened the ZeBox incubator and CMA CGM Academy and is now building a new office tower. With 47 nationalities, the International Academic Campus, an infrastructure component eagerly awaited by the group, will open its doors nearby in 2024. France opens one such institution every 10 years; it will host 2,100 students from primary school to high school. It will offer teaching in five foreign languages. Meanwhile, Aix Marseille Université will do its part to attract international talent with the introduction of CIVIS, the first European university network linked to some 10 other universities across the continent.

65 companies relocated to Aix-Marseille-Provence in 2020

The journalists were treated to a view of the Bay of Marseille from the tree-lined rooftop of La Marseillaise tower, voted the world's second-most beautiful skyscraper. There they met with elected officials from the Metropolis. Martine Vassal, president of the young authority, reviewed the region's many assets in terms of available business real estate, youth, strategic location on the Mediterranean and Africa and, of course, the genial climate.

Jean-Luc Chauvin, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Aix-Marseille-Provence and Bernard Deflesselles, President of Provence Promotion, presented the 2020 results achieved by the economic development agency, which managed to draw 65 businesses to the region in spite of the pandemic. Marseille is a breeding ground for bold entrepreneurs. Benoît Jobert, founder of Babel Community, a co-living concept launched successfully in Marseille on Rue de la République that is now thriving throughout France, allowed the journalists to visit the construction site of his next location, a 1928 building that used to house a Galeries Lafayettes department store.

Babel, L’Épopée… new concepts are springing up in Marseille

Paris no longer has a monopoly on pioneering and trend-setting venues, as explained by Baligh Ferjani, husband of Sophie, the famous M6 decorator who opened her first interior design shop on Rue de la République. Imagining a new, more inclusive world that is more youth oriented... That is the vision of L’Épopée which is introducing a social and educational innovation village in North Marseille in the former headquarters of the Ricard Group ‒ occupying nearly 130,000 ft2. "An effervescent city teeming with culture and creativity. Here, the city is empowered to experiment. There is room to try out transitional ideas," stressed Sandra Chalinet, a real estate expert who oversaw the debut of the Les Terrasses du Port shopping center in 2013.

* Métropole Aix-Marseille-Provence, Grand Port Maritime de Marseille-Fos, Aix-Marseille Université, Département des Bouches-du-Rhône, Aéroport Marseille Provence, Euroméditerranée, Kedge BS, Interxion, Engie, Total, EDF, Crédit Agricole Alpes Provence, Primonial.