We at Sophia Business Angels were particularly saddened by the news that our dear friend and colleague, Pierre Laffitte, passed away on 7 July, at the age of 96. He was the President and founder of the Sophia-Antipolis technopole, the largest technopole in Europe. An eminent scientist but also a committed politician, Pierre Laffitte sat in the Senate for the Alpes-Maritimes region from 1985 to 2008 where he served as the specialist in innovation issues.
Born in Saint Paul de Vence, he graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Mines. The idea of a cluster bringing together research centers, top universities, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), public and private organizations emerged in his mind in the 1960s. In 2019, Sophia-Antipolis celebrated its 50 years anniversary, paying tribute to their founder at the same time. The technology park now encompasses more than 2,000 hectares bringing together 2,230 companies and 36,000 people, including 4,000 researchers and 5,000 students.
He was one of the first to move the focus away from heavy industry and towards the knowledge economy and was considered a futurist for his insistence on a modern, environmentally sustainable economic development, that was not only non-polluting but could even help to protect the natural world.
Below are personal tributes to Senator Laffitte from SBA members and colleagues who worked closely with him over the years and were fortunate enough to call him friend.
Candace Johnson is a global infrastructure, network and innovation expert and entrepreneur and co-initiator of SES/ASTRA and SES Global, the world’s pre-eminent satellite group. She is an active investor and serves on multiple boards and is currently serving as President of the SBA.
“Dear Friends of Innovation, of Entrepreneurship, of Vision, of Truth, of Passion, of Science and of Life’s Values,
I first met Senator Laffitte in the Spring of 2001. As always up until the very day he left us, his eyes were bright, his intellect keen, his energy lighting up a room, his dedication to getting things done palpable at every moment you were in his presence.
Even if I had not known that he was THE man, THE visionary, THE creative, moral, responsible leader, scientist, educator, and true civic force behind innovation and entrepreneurialism on a global and indeed inter-planetary scale, I would have known that here was a universal, renaissance human being, guided by an inner north star so bright and so true, that he was incapable of doing wrong and improbable as it seems for a scientist who called Nobel Prize laureate George Charpak and members of the French Academy of Science Benoit Mandelbrot, and Michel Lazdunski his close friends; he was an eternal optimist.
Although, he may have been best known for creating the first, and still today largest, European high-tech center, Senator Laffitte was also at the genesis of Sophia EuroLab, Europe’s first private trans-border venture capital firm; the Sophia Business Angels, one of Europe’s first Business Angel Networks of which he was also the Honorary President; Les Villes Côtières, an NGO to fight against the rising waters engulfing and endangering our coastal cities and the International Association of Science and Technology Parks (IASP), to name just a few of the initiatives which he started and kept on promoting and supporting during his lifetime.
As an educator (President of the Ecole des Mines), as a scientist (Geologist), as a writer, a politician, a friend to young and old, a linguist who spoke German, English, and Russian fluently with good levels of Chinese and Japanese, Senator Pierre Laffitte was a global citizen who helped bring about and influenced entire ecosystems revolving around high tech entrepreneurship, innovation and investment, and all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, long before they were even created.
At the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of Sophia Antipolis which the Sophia Business Angels and the European Business Angels Network (EBAN) organised to pay homage to him, more than 100 business angels, entrepreneurs, and innovators traveled from as far as the United States, Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Finland, Ireland, the UK, etc. to thank him for all that he had done to inspire and bring about those entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems in their countries. Words such as “transformational”, “pragmatic excellence”, “academic rigour combined with visionary leadership” were just some of the accolades mentioned as each came forward to express their admiration and gratitude to him for having indeed brought positive change to their lives, to their countries, and to the world.
He celebrated all aspects of life. In his last years, his wife Isabelle together with her two sons and his nephews and nieces gave him such happiness and joy. He could dance a mean Tango and enjoy a good Rum Egg Nog with gusto. He cultivated friendships and relationships with artists, musicians, politicians, business leaders, educators, entrepreneurs. He was a true son of Saint Paul de Vence, the town of his birth to which he always kept loyal and promoted throughout his travels. His garden, which he also personally cultivated and cared for right up until his last days, was a botanical splendour with rare fruits, plants, and flowers interspersed with sculptures from around the world. His home-made mandarin jelly was legendary as was his orange wine!
He was lucid, luminous, lively, and embodied all the attributes written in the title above.
We shall keep our magnificent Senator Pierre Laffitte in our hearts forever. His legacy will continue to positively impact generations around the world for years to come.”
Edgardo da Fonseca
With 25 years of experience in the computer and telecommunications industry, he is a serial entrepreneur who has created and led several companies, and is the founding president of SBA and current board member.
“I have several words that describe Senator Laffitte that I will use to summarize his contributions to Sophia Antipolis and to the SBA. He was a visionary. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was the regional senator who fought the hardest to get the proposed Sophia Antipolis (SA) project accepted. He defended his project tooth and nail in front of the government officials in Paris who ironically said: “The French Riviera is a suitable territory for the hospitality business, but not for implementing a Technopole!” Time proved that Senator Laffitte was right and his Sophia Antipolis project is not only a palpable reality, but also served as an example of the development of Technopoles throughout the world. It is important to remember what a unique experiment this was given that the region did not have the traditional infrastructure associated with technology parks that are supported by universities, researchers, venture capitalists, etc. He simply negotiated land rights in a protected environmental area and was allowed to move forward to build his vision for the future, right here.
He was a strategist. I arrived in Sophia Antipolis in the 80s, while working for Digital Equipment, at that time an icon of the computers industry. The only two other technology companies in the area were Texas Instruments and IBM. It was during this fast-growing cycle of SA, that I met senator Laffitte. He was instrumental in bringing international companies to establish their operation, in SA, mainly research and development. For example, in Digital in 1983 we were 40 employees and when I left in 1992 there were more than 600. So, the strategies planned by the senator started to pay off. And the focus of SA expanded from high-tech into a myriad of different sectors as other big names like Air France, Toyota,
He was a tactician. In 1996, when I was setting up the EMEA operations for Ascend Communications, I contacted the senator again and he helped me to convince our headquarters in California to open the European headquarters in SA. It’s another great success story. We started from scratch to reach 100 employees in 2000 and to then were acquired by Lucent Technologies. Senator Laffitte always kept a close eye on the Cote d’Azur development to identify high potential companies to come to the region.
He was a true leader. In 2002, Understanding the need for private investment in the region (institutional investors at the time were not doing early stage) senator Laffitte made a call to action to Sophia Antipolis leaders. 40 Entrepreneurs respond and met in Foundation Maeght in Vence, looking to create an entity to foster early-stage investment. 5 of us (including Candace Johnson) took the challenge. So, this is how SBA was born and I was honoured to be the founding president, but of course, the senator remained our honorary president, always supporting Innovation and start-ups. Note, later in 2007 – 2009 the actions of then President Nicolas Sarkozy to reduce wealth taxes for those who invested in start-ups companies opened the floodgates for French investment in the region.
All of my respect to Senator Laffitte, my mentor, my example…. someone who radiated across several generations: his wisdom, his strength of conviction, and his tenacity. That led him to be the vector of value creation that we all admired.”
Eric has decades of experience in sales, distribution, trading and new technologies both in operational roles and as an angel investor. He is President Emeritus and a board member with Sophia Business Angels.
“In 2012, after my return to France from a life in distribution, import/export and trading of commodities and technologies, especially in IT and engineering, in Africa, Europe, CIS and Asia, I went to pay my respects to Senator Laffitte, a dear friend of my grandfather’s who I had met once in my youth.
I was struck by the brightness and light in Pierre Laffitte's eyes, the eternal youthfulness of his vision, his optimism, his pugnacity, his humanity, his intelligence, his acuity in the perception of problems and stakes.
A man for all seasons and all topics, there was not one subject which could not benefit from his relevant analysis. In a flash, his mind would grasp the essence of a complex system and issue and he would make astonishing, perceptive suggestions to improve whole areas of our societies, from the creation of new systems of valorization of companies to the promotion of the most relevant innovations in energy, mobility, strategy, the environment, in all fields. Always, he was placing fairness, accuracy, relevance and judicious assessments at the center of interests.
It was through Senator Laffitte that I got to know the Sophia Business Angels and became inspired to start a new venture in the green-tech environment. I also wanted to contribute to a circular economy and sustainable development through the trading and recycling of industrial non-ferrous materials worldwide, something which greatly occupied Senator Laffitte’s thoughts and activities in his last years.
An extraordinary man, the Sophia Antipolis technology park he created is now known throughout the world, a contribution that is difficult to quantify in terms of quantity and quality. His passing is a loss for all of us, but with it comes the hope that we can all try to pass on his energy and his light.”
Alan Barrell has worked globally from his base in Cambridge, UK, for 54 years. He has raised and managed an early stage venture capital fund and is an Angel investor working with a number of start-ups and growing companies in UK, China and Finland.
“Looking back over eight decades of a full life, there are just a very small number of fellow members of the human race that constantly occupy my thoughts when reflecting on influences brought to bear on my own engagement in innovation, entrepreneurship and true international connectedness and how we might make the world a better place. At the top of my list without question, is Senator Pierre Laffitte. I was enthralled to hear the full story of how, through Pierre Laffitte’s inspiration, creativity and energy for a new city of science, culture and technology had emerged on a barren arid plateau west of Nice. Sophia Antipolis was the creation of Pierre Laffitte, and it was born at a time following tragedy, hence the name Sophia in memoriam of Senator Laffitte’s first wife, Sophie Glikman Toumarkine. Sophia is also the Greek word for wisdom and the original name for the city of Antibes on the Cote d’Azur.
I was honoured by being one of those who worked with Pierre over a number of years to form and work on one of the first attempts at connecting technology clusters from around the world and across borders. This was “The Champions League”. Founded in 2003 and embracing France through Sophia Antipolis, Israel with Tel Aviv involvement, Munich, Cambridge in the UK and Montreal in Canada. A wonderful cross-border activity to form a super-cluster by bringing together leaders from those centres to exchange best practice information and extend and enhance the value and benefits of emerging technology around the world.
Personally, I have a very special debt of thanks owed to Pierre. On that first visit he introduced me to Candace Johnson “someone you must meet without delay” he told me early one morning. Astonishingly, he immediately made a telephone call and within an hour there appeared, in a ball gown, the lady I have known and regarded so highly as a friend and fellow business angel, Candace Johnson. Candace had been at an all - night celebratory event and came to meet me “on the spot” before going home to change and refresh. How could one forget such a first meeting?
I will be eternally grateful for the invitation from Candace and SBA to attend the birthday celebrations organised for Senator Laffitte in the fall of 2019. It was such a wonderful event, and we have the photographs to cherish. Pierre was in great form and related to me ideas for his “latest projects”. He was never without new ideas or new initiatives.
It is indeed an honour to be invited to contribute to a tribute and celebration on the life of Senator Pierre Laffitte. He was a great man whose life was dedicated to the support, education and encouragement of others – often those emerging and struggling to make a mark. He fought the good fight for what he believed in and he never gave in or gave up. A role model of exceptional integrity and capability, he was fighter for innovation, opportunities for all, justice and truth.”
Mr. Sanz is President of the Advisory Council for the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation, Spain.
“I have managed IASP (International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation) for 26 years and I still remain involved in this worldwide network in my new capacity as President of its Advisory Council. All throughout these years the figure and meaning of Pierre Lafitte has been an inspiring reference in our industry. I met Senator Lafitte at the very beginning of the history of IASP, an association of which he is still its honorary President and of which he was the leading character behind its foundation, back in 1984 in Sophia Antipolis.
Some names become myths and evoke legends just by pronouncing them, and I know that I am not being hyperbolic when I say that such is the case with Pierre and with Sophia Antipolis, his creation. IASP was a logical and unavoidable result of such a trait of genius.
I have benefitted from Pierre Lafitte’s inspiration and experience on many occasions and I consider myself very fortunate to have been, somehow, his adopted pupil, and I would like to think that I am entitled to consider him a very dear fatherly figure or even better, my sensei to use a well-known Japanese term. For all that, I just want to say something very simple and straightforward: thank you very much to Pierre for everything he has done for IASP and for me.”