Corsican Startups are Napoleon Dynamite

Like New Hope, Pennsylvania, Corsica is most definitely not the first place that comes to mind when we talk about tech and innovation. For the geographically challenged, I should clarify that we’re talking about that island off the southern coast of France. You know, where Napoleon comes from – or more recently where Alicia Keyes got married (wow, never thought I’d put these two characters in the same sentence). It may be void of both Starbucks and McDonalds – but definitely not startups.

So essentially I’ve been on a quest to expose the tech/startup activity in Corsica for a while now and oddly enough, the opportunity came at a time that is usually less active for French companies. Then again, when you work in Corscia, I guess you don’t really need to take a vacation.

The Île de Beauté or Island of Beauty has a population of roughly 300,000 with only one university for roughly 4,000 students. Translation: if you decide to stick around to study something like engineering, there’s a good chance you’ll have no more than 10-20 people max in your graduating class. Yet, even though a fair share of the local population tends to head to Paris or larger French cities when it comes to higher education, some startups – like DuoApps – are actually 100% home-grown.

Founded in 2009, DuoApps specializes in smartphone application development. The company, who now boasts big-name French clients like Marianne and M6, is a spin-off of a school project that started 2 years ago when one of the co-founders – Dominique Siacci – was just 19. Along with his now 24-year-old co-founder, Francescu Santoni, the 5-person team has created some killer applications – including my personal favorite Parlu Corsu, an iPhone application for learning the local Corsican language. The startup was also behind the first ever iPhone app in Corsican, iPiatzetta.

DuoApps is also behind the mobile apps platform of another Corsican startup, WMaker. This platform generates iPhone, iPad and Android applications for content published using WMaker’s content management system. Unlike lowcost Appmakr or highly customizable Mobile Roadie, this solution aims at providing standard, BBC-inspired mobile applications more for editorial content distribution than multimedia. While the iPhone is by far the most popular application, all 3 apps (iPhone, Android and iPad) go for a one-time fee of €990.

And if DuoApps and WMaker have a well-integrated product, it’s definitely not by accident; the 2 companies, along with iSpirit (who develops Mapize), work closely together in the Ajaccio-based CampusPlex. This incubator-style startup space (somewhat similar to La Cantine in Paris) was created in November of 2009 by WMaker founder, Sébastien Simoni, and has grown to roughly 20 people in less than a year. It’s definitely worth checking out if you ever happen to be in Ajaccio. FYI, monthly workspace is roughly €250 per person.

Aside from the CMS and mobile app generation platforms, WMaker’s 12-person team has also developed a web TV solution and an RSS mashup platform, xFruits. The DIY-flavored, modular, drag-and-drop video platform has been used by companies like to diffuse video content. As for xFruits, the platform is currently available in 5 languages – which is perhaps why 1/3 of users are based in the US. Founded back in 2001, WMaker may be the oldest company of the CampusPlex bunch but its aiming to launch a new version of its TV and mobile apps solutions that would be WordPress compatible sometime next year.

The third and final company in CampusPlex, iSpirit, didn’t shy away from mixing in a bit of WMaker’s CMS into the back-end of its social mapping platform either. And I’m not gonna lie, that corporate website looks awfully familiar as well. In June, the company launched a free social mapping mashup in beta that allows users and businesses to easily map just about whatever social data they want. So if you’re wondering what all your Twitter followers would look like on a map (potentially à la Tweemap), Mapize’s platform imports the available data from Twitter and displays it via Google Earth. The startup plans to introduce a Freemium business model to the new platform later this year. The company’s solution has already gone international; for example, Darwin, Australia, uses the company’s solution to map its city bus schedule. And just for fun, check out this map of the Forbes ranking of the richest people in the world. I guess it goes without saying that, Mapize founder, François Xavier Cardi, is also a huge Foursquare fan.

But Corsica’s startup scene is not just limited to the Ajaccio CampusPlex bunch either. For example, the northern city of Bastia also boasts some pretty damn cool start-ups, like iMusic-School – which offers online video music lessons with well-known musicians – and a platform that facilitates extramarital affairs (aka a Gleeden competitor), But more to come on these later.

Contrary to Parisian startups, Corsican startups definitely rely more on self-funding and State funding organizations, like OSEO. Naturally, it’s easier to get regional State funding/grants when there’s little to no competition but Corsica’s geographical aspects seem to be less VC-friendly. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to pin-down any Corsica-based business angels or VC funds, although iMusic-School did mention that they had been able to secure funding with Paris-based Seventure in May (FYI the CEO is based on the continent, near Nice). But there is money to be had: Marseille-based Viveris Management has a 37 million euro fund that is to be invested only in Corsican companies. Roughly 10 million of it has been invested in 8 projects since 2008 (primarily solar and sustainable development) despite whatever geographical limitations may scare investors away.

So all in all, it’s pretty damn cool to see this small island turning out entrepreneurs. To all those Corsicans who left to go study and work elsewhere, don’t think that there aren’t possibilities back at home. Heck, if Bonaparte were around today, I’m pretty sure he would have a startup too. I’ll take this opportunity to wish the most famous Corsican a happy bday – his legacy turns 241 this Sunday.