E-neo, Hopium: where are the aids from the French government?
Due to lack of public support, a promising retrofit player had to stop its activities when it was time to move to scale up production. But the threat is also hanging over Hopium. These situations raise a bunch of questions regarding France’s ability to support start-ups.
French hydrogen manufacturers e-Neo and Hopium in the doldrums
Emotions have been running high in the French hydrogen industry since Friday evening. The founder of e-Neo, Jérémy Cantin, announced on his LinkedIn account the end of a great adventure. Several reasons are behind this failure: delays to get approval, difficulties in supplying some parts… However, the principal pitfall came from a problem of financing. “Where is the 9 billion hydrogen plan promised by the French government? On TV, for sure, but not a single crumb for e-Neo. We haven’t received any help from any official body for that matter,” wrote bitterly the e-Neo founder. “Too small, too old or too big. Too dead now,” he summarised in his post.
Is everything lost for Hopium as well?
The same situation threatens Hopium. As we know, the hydrogen car manufacturer is in a delicate financial situation. It can hold on until this summer, thanks to the support of a British investment fund, Atlas. But its survival depends whether or not it can find new financings. Contrary to popular belief, sustained by the fact that a former minister of Emmanuel Macron was the chairman of the board of directors, Hopium has not received any subsidies. Apart from a €1 million grant from Bpifrance at the start, the company has not received any public money. It has called on private funds on the stock market to develop. One of the lifeline comes from a subsidy that could be granted by France 2030 in the framework of the Auto Invest programme. The application, submitted at the end of March, was deemed admissible. The young company is refocusing on the fuel cell and considers that its performance will make it possible to address several mobility markets, in addition to its HUV project. It believes it can play a key role in the global growing competition.
What will happen if it is refused, or if the decision is delayed? At Hopium, the priority is to find a solution that favours France and its ecosystem. The desire is to preserve know-how, with about a hundred high-level engineers who have developed a fuel cell announced as very efficient. Its founder, Olivier Lombard, has managed to attract a rare pool of talent with strong expertise in hydrogen. The risk is that the company may be rescued by foreign funds, meaning a possible offshoring. Hopium is coveted by players in China and the Middle East. The French government is allegedly aware of the situation.
A typical French problem?
The most astonishing thing is that the state has enough funds. But it does not use them to help actors who want to create jobs in France. At least not the “small” ones. It is the case for both e-Neo and Hopium. The latter is keen to emphasise the role of the regions, which it deem to be the right link to help manufacturers “in the field.” If you remember well, the Normandy region granted a 2 million euro loan, in order to safeguard the factory project in Vernon, Normandy (Northern France). A transfer of competences and means is needed so that the French regions can help industrial projects, which require strong support. This is a typical French problem. Whatever the technology, France is unable to scale up innovation projects.
Emmanuel Macron may be honest when he states that France’s ambition is to become a world leader in hydrogen by 2030. However, there is a terrible gap between his intentions and the reality faced by the industry. Although it was not planned, he visited the Hopium stand during the Paris Motor Show last year. He is probably unaware of the difficulties that the company is currently going through. As for the French H2 sector, it would be the last straw to see the manufacturer go under a foreign flag, exhibiting a stand at the next Qatar Motor Show for instance.
Article written by Laurent Meillaud and Translated by Logan King