VivaTech: Reporter’s Notebook

Localization drives startup activity in developing countries; innovation counts.


What makes a successful startup in Silicon Valley or Europe is very different from what defines success in other parts of the world. While much of the mainstream tech industry focuses on markets such as automotive, 5G and AI, there is a less-obvious boom in startups with a much narrower focus.

All of this was readily apparent at last week’s Viva Technology Conference in Paris, a gathering of established companies such as Google, Facebook and Softbank, as well as a slew of companies from places like South Africa, Morocco, Slovakia. In many cases, the emphasis was on ecology, sustainability and health, but there were localized implementations of technology such as smartphones, as well, and some interesting innovations in the luxury flying vehicle niche.

Consider Maraphone, a maker of high-end smartphones based in Rwanda, which offers unlimited storage, a quad-core processor, Dolby sound, and a 13-megapixel camera for $150. The higher-end model sells for $219 and comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8-core Arm Cortex A53. Mamadou Kolade, head of external affairs at Maraphone, said the goal is to provide high-end smartphone features for a local market where price is a critical factor.

“The goal was to develop a phone that is reliable, affordable, and to do that with very low margins,” said Kolade. “We are manufacturing this from scratch.”

Fig. 1: Maraphone’s high-end model. Photo: Semiconductor Engineering/Linda Christensen

At the other end of the spectrum, Aeromobil showed off a prototype of its flying car, a €1.2 million vehicle that comes complete with a pressurized cabin and movable wings that lock into place. The company is currently undergoing crash tests of the vehicle so that it can be certified as safe for the road. There are no similar tests for airplanes, according to Stefan Vadocz, the company’s chief communications officer, but you cannot take off without a pilot’s license.

Getting a vehicle this heavy off the ground isn’t simple. It has a custom carbon-fiber body and a maximum weight of 960 kilograms (2,116 pounds). But it runs on 95 octane gasoline and will go from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds. It has a top speed of 260 kilometers per hour (162mph) and requires 595 meters (1,952 feet) with its wings spread out at 112 kph (70mph) to lift off.

“We’ve been testing this for two years,” said Vadocz, who noted that self-driving and self-flying vehicles are on the roadmap, as well.

Fig. 2: Aeromobil’s flying car. Photo: Semiconductor Engineering/Linda Christensen

Between these two extremes, there were hundreds of startups developing technology for everything from dust and pollution sensors to much more targeted AI applications. There also were demos of wireless charging for cars through integrated tires and wheels, and office and home robots.

VivaTech isn’t particularly well known in the chip world, but this year it reported 124,000 attendees—about 18,000 more than the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, was one of the keynoters. His talk centered on startups, which France has turned out by the hundreds in places such as Grenoble and around major cities, including Paris. Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, talked about what makes a company successful. And numerous sessions were devoted to how to pitch and sustain a startup.

Investors from Europe and Asia were prominent among the attendees. So were CEOs courting investments. And while this show seems to fit somewhere between a Maker Faire and a more established tech expo, it also is rich in innovations that cannot be found anywhere else. And that provides a potentially lucrative market for all sorts of chips.

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