France’s Orange Launches Digital Ventures, A $23M Fund For Early Stage Investments

Orange, the big French carrier with 240 million customers formerly known as France Telecom, is today unveiling its latest bid to get closer to little startups, and appear a little cooler in the process. Or, as some might think of it, Orange wants to be the new black. It has unveiled a new fund called Digital Ventures, with the aim of finding, strategically funding and then working with early-stage tech businesses. Orange says that Digital Ventures will start out initially with a budget of €20 million ($23 million).

As you might already know, this is not Orange’s first moves in the area of venture funding, nor will it be the first time it has worked with startups.

In 2012, the company started a $400 million fund in partnership with advertising giant Publicis and French investment manager Iris. Prior to that, it backed individual sites like music streaming site Deezer and online video company DailyMotion. And it’s also partnered with gas company Total and train company SNCF to launch Ecomobilité Ventures, a €30 million investment company “specifically to promote sustainable mobility.”

The carrier has also set out a stall in Silicon Valley, which runs an accelerator called OrangeFab that gives startups $20,000 in a three-month program, taking no equity in the process. It also has a co-working and event space called the “GigaStudio.”

Digital Ventures fills a gap in what Orange already does, but it also sounds like it has a pretty wide remit.

Orange says it’s looking for interesting ideas in “communication, connectivity, the cloud, payments, the Internet of Things and big data, e-health, security services, developing innovative solutions and technologies as well as inventing new business models.” The startup can be located anywhere. You could argue that Orange is not coming at this with much focus, or you could say that anything interesting goes.

What’s also a little eye-catching is that it doesn’t look like Orange has named anyone specific to run this new fund.

Asked if there are any partners or anyone at Orange taking the lead on Digital Ventures, an Orange spokesperson responded, “No partners.”

[Update: Another Orange spokesperson says in fact there are people leading this: Pierre Louette, Deputy CEO of Orange, will be running the fund, and it will also have a selection committee chaired by Louette, with Mari-Noelle Jégo-Laveissière, SVP, Innovation, Marketing and Technology also in a leadership role.]

In its promotional material, Orange notes that it will have “a dedicated team of digital specialists and a simplified, rapid selection methodology. The intent is to deliver entrepreneurs a first response in less than 30 days.”

So far there have been no startups selected for funding.

Similar to the approach taken by other VCs that focus on early-stage companies, Digital Ventures is positioning itself as a kind of mentor, as well as backer.

“The ambition for Orange Digital Ventures is to work alongside them to transform far-sighted, talented entrepreneurs into key players in their chosen markets and in so doing, benefit Orange and its customers,” the company notes.

Indeed, similar to some other carrier-based VC efforts, it sounds like there is a strong strategic angle here, where Orange is not only a financial backer but a partner, too. In other words, those startups who get involved will likely get access to working with Orange employees, as well as Orange’s technology and marketing and network channels. Depending on whether the young startup thinks Orange’s large size is a good or bad thing, that could be a boost or a bust.