Five French Entrepreneurs Caring for the Planet

Innovation à la française can help biodiversity, limit global warming, and fight against food waste. Here are five profiles of French entrepreneurs who decided to grow their startups in the United States.
Lucie Basch. © Too Good To Go


François-Xavier Rouxel’s Indoor Vegetable Gardens

Salad greens, peppers, beans, celery, herbs, and even strawberries, whatever the season, all as fresh as can be – and without even leaving the house! Since 2020, Gardyn has been offering indoor garden kits that can be used to grow up to 30 edible plants simultaneously “in an apartment or a basement, and even if you don’t have a green thumb,” says François-Xavier “FX” Rouxel, the founder and CEO of the Maryland-based company. This Ecole Polytechnique graduate and engineer moved to the United States to work for the French IT services group Capgemini. He then had an idea to use technology to “offer people fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables, just like the ones sold at markets in Southern France. And all without shipping or pesticides!”

© Gardyn
© Gardyn

Designed in partnership with researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Gardyn is an all-in-one package of hydroponic agriculture including irrigation, LED lighting, systems management, and even the plants themselves, which are delivered in ready-to-use capsules containing seeds and the substrate needed to grow. A camera and AI software constantly monitor the vertical garden, and provide tips on plant care and harvesting via an app accessible by subscription. “All in all, Gardyn costs less than 50 dollars per month, with everything included,” says François-Xavier Rouxel. “We offer some 60 different plants, including delicious varieties that are hard to find in stores!”


Arnaud Lacourt’s Plan Bee

Bees are essential for the reproduction of most plants, and therefore for human survival, and are currently under threat. Land artificialization, coupled with the rise of monocultures and intensive agriculture, are causing pollinating insect populations to plumet. This is especially the case in the United States, where hives are now transported by truck throughout the season, as this is the only way to safeguard future harvests. After a career in tech, Arnaud Lacourt developed a passion for beekeeping and decided to tackle the problem directly within the hives themselves. Ubees, which he cofounded in 2017, has developed smart receptors that measure the hive’s temperature and the bees’ activity. The resulting data is accessible in real time via a smartphone. “This shows us how many bees are present and how many are ready to gather pollen from flowers,” he says. “We can then use this information to place hives in optimal locations and reduce mortality.”

Arnaud Lacourt. © Ubees
© Ubees

Originally launched in France and aimed at the urban beekeeping segment, the startup grew rapidly in the United States, home to the world’s biggest pollination services market, which is estimated at one billion dollars per year. Ubees operates 10,000 hives across five sites in the U.S., and has some 50 clients nationwide. Meanwhile, the company also works with small farms – coffee bean plantations in Colombia and avocado plantations in Mexico, for instance – to help them reconnect with beekeeping and generate additional income, with the support of multinationals such as Nespresso. “Our goal is to reinstate hives wherever possible, as part of an approach based on regenerative agriculture.”


Lucie Basch’s Fight against Food Waste

Too Good To Go, the business cofounded by Lucie Basch in 2016, is based on a simple yet effective principle: a smartphone app to connect food companies (bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.) and local consumers to prevent unsold items from being thrown away at the end of the day. After graduating from the Centrale Lille engineering school, the founder started her career working in Nestlé factories in the U.K., where she realized the full extent of food waste. However, it was while on a trip to Norway that she discovered the solution, by combining digital technology with the collaborative economy. Customers use a smartphone to reserve a “surprise basket” of products sold at a third of their full price, to be collected at the end of the working day. The company earns money from products it would otherwise have thrown out, and the startup makes a commission on each transaction.

© Too Good To Go

Too Good To Go is now present in 15 European countries as well as in Canada and the United States, where the founder moved in 2020 to launch and develop her idea. “The objective was to prove that our concept worked, first in New York City, then in Boston,” says Lucie Basch. “In 2021, we launched on the West Coast, followed by Chicago and Austin. That gave us a real local base and we used it to launch in Canada straight afterwards.” Now also available in Miami and Los Angeles, which were added a few months ago, Too Good To Go has built its North American presence to include 17,000 partner companies and 4.6 million users. Meanwhile, more than six million meals have been “saved from the trash” in the United States, and the platform has collected 200 million baskets worldwide in the last seven years. The founder returned to Europe last year, and has fond memories of her time in America. “I was so lucky to start my business in the U.S., but it also came with daily challenges. The market is far more competitive, even without direct competition, marketing costs are higher, and working methods are different. You need to make sure you’re prepared before you go!”


Guénaël Prince’s Ingenious Use for Landfill Gas

What if pollution could be used as a source of renewable energy? Launched near Grenoble in 2015 by three engineers who previously worked for French group Air Liquide, Waga Energy specializes in processing gas emitted from landfills. Instead of burning it or letting it escape into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming, this “landfill gas” can be captured, filtered, transformed into biomethane, and used instead of fossil fuels in heating and transportation. The entire operation takes place in a Wagabox, a compact unit the size of a basketball court. Some 15 of these are already being used in France, and the company will be inaugurating its first American site at the end of the summer near Corning, New York.

© Waga Energy
© Waga Energy

“With 2,700 landfills, the United States represents a major source of renewable gas, and we quickly decided to establish ourselves on this market,” says Guénaël Prince, cofounder and CEO of Waga Energy USA. After directing the startup’s research and development department, he moved with his family to a town near Philadelphia in 2019 to launch the U.S. branch. In the United States, Waga Energy also sells some of its technology, the cryogenic distillation units, to Air Liquide. “Americans already process gas from several large landfills, but our technology enables us to work on medium-size and small sites,” says Guénaël Prince. “Our business model also sets us apart, as we invest in and develop the project from start to finish, and pay a percentage of the profits back to the site operator. This biomethane is the cheapest gas available today, and has become a pillar of the green transition.”


Marc Collins Chen’s Floating Cities

Rising sea levels are one of the many dangers linked to global warming. This phenomenon threatens 90% of large cities in coastal areas, including Miami, New Orleans, Lagos, and Calcutta. “Building walls to keep out the waves or pushing embankments into the sea is pointless in the long term and it destroys ecosystems,” says Marc Collins Chen, the founder of Oceanix. This Hawaiian-born French-American engineer and entrepreneur was the tourism minister for Polynesia in 2007-2008, and has come up with a solution worthy of a Jules Verne novel: floating structures spanning five acres, specifically designed to resist hurricanes. These self-sustainable, aquatic villages will be powered by renewable energy, produce their own drinking water, and will feature living quarters, urban farms, and aquaculture centers.

© Oceanix USA
© Oceanix USA

“Unlike the artificial island projects from libertarians, who dream of towns for billionaires located in international waters to escape taxation, our objective is to offer an accessible living environment for everyone in partnership with local cities.” Founded in New York City in 2018, the company has been supported by UN-Habitat, a United Nations program for sustainable urban development. The MIT Center for Ocean Engineering and the Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels have also joined the project, whose first prototype will be launched in Busan, South Korea. The neighborhood, which should be completed in 2030, will be able to house 12,000 people across several modules spanning a total of 15 acres. After carrying the project this far, Marc Collins Chen handed over his position as CEO to Philipp Hofmann, who has a background in construction. “I am still a member of the board of directors,” says the founder. “And I am continuing to represent Oceanix among cities and investors.”

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.