February 29, 2012 6:58 pm

SAED: Well placed to make a power play

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Sophia Antipolis Energie Développement (SAED), a solar energy specialist, signed up its first client in January.

The company began trading in summer 2011, after its owners completed a design and development programme aimed at mastering a new process to harness the power of the sun.

solar panels

Sun trap: low-cost panels

It took four years and just under €5m for SAED to come to market with its Premio product. The company is marketing a low-cost system for collecting and storing the sun’s energy and using it to generate power on-demand and heat premises.

Balma, a new town in the greater Toulouse area, was the launch customer, and will use the solar energy system for a district heating network, says Christian Lenôtre, managing director.

The company’s three founders raised €4.7m in matched private and public funds, drawing on a pool of 20 individual and institutional investors.

“For every euro of private investment, there is a euro of public investment,” says Mr Lenôtre.

Among the institutional backers were the Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maitrise de l’Energie, the national energy and environment agency, Oseo, a state-backed body for helping small and medium-sized companies and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regional council.

Technology partners included the CEA national atomic energy commission, elite engineering school Mines ParisTech and Schneider Electric, an energy group.

Raising the institutional support was probably helped by the identity of the company’s two other founders.

Pierre Laffitte is the man behind the idea of Sophia Antipolis, a city based on learning, buzzing with the social and intellectual exchange of the Paris Left Bank, but set in rolling hills under a southern sun and by the Mediterranean Sea.

Sophie is the name of Mr Laffitte’s wife; Sophia was also the Greek goddess of wisdom. Antipolis is the ancient Greek name for Antibes, one of the five big towns in the region.

Michel Wohrer is a former top executive of HSBC France and a graduate of Ecole Normale Supérieure, the school that trains France’s senior civil servants, and the Ecole des Mines.

Mr Lenôtre is also a graduate of Ecole des Mines and Ecole Central, two elite engineering schools.

SAED has set a sales target of €35m by 2016, and is recruiting staff to market its product, Mr Lenôtre says. The company employs 11 staff and expects to have 18 on the payroll this year.

It predicts sales in industrial laundry, drinks bottling, textiles, water desalination, and almost any organisation that needs heating.

The company also hopes to tap into managements that have signed up to reducing carbon emissions.

Apart from social responsibility, the hard economics of cutting electricity bills may be a persuasive sales pitch.

The company expects to find a natural market in countries in north Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where an abundance of sunshine all year round could help sales of its system.

Nice airport is regarded as an advantage in reaching international clients.

The cross-fertilisation effect afforded by the science park has been a significant benefit, Mr Lenôtre says. “It’s important to be surrounded by laboratories and competences,” he says.

A greening of technology and its commercial application are also behind the efforts of the Nice authorities to create Eco-Vallée, a park of more than 10,000 hectares behind the city, bringing together companies working in sustainable development.

Eco-Vallée is also a blueprint for economic and urban development, and includes a plan to use the Var river as a waterway, while tapping into the attraction of the Côte d’Azur as a tourist and business destination.

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