Accuracy Talks Straight #3
For our third edition of Accuracy Talks Straight, Frédéric Recordon discusses business and economic developments in China, before letting Romain Proglio introduce us to Amiral Technologies, a start-up specialised in disruptive technology. We then analyse the development of the hydrogen industry with Jean-François Partiot and Hervé de Trogoff.
Sophie Chassat, philosopher and partner at Wemean, explores Chinese society “as one”. And finally, we look closer at the numbers with Bruno Martinaud, Entrepreneurship Academic Director at Ecole Polytechnique, as well as at the macroeconomic and microeconomic risk in China with Hervé Goulletquer, our senior economic adviser.
GOVERNING A GREAT COUNTRY IS LIKE COOKING A SMALL FISH1
At first glance, everything seems to be going well in China. The country has overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, its economy has regained momentum, and it seems to be entering a new era of prosperity, one that European businesses present in the country should be able use to good advantage.
However, upon reading the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025), troubling signs of the country starting to turn in on itself are becoming evident, allowing considerable doubt to linger over the country’s future growth trajectory.
After 40 years of modernisation, economic reform and opening up to the world, the Chinese economy has reached c. USD 10k in GDP per capita, a level similar to that of Japan and South Korea after equivalent 40-year periods of economic growth in these countries in the past. However, for the last five years, Chinese growth has been significantly running out of steam, and this trend may well continue if the country chooses insulation over the openness practised since Deng Xiaoping.
The Dual Circulation policy, the core of the 14th Plan, seems to prioritise the autonomy of the domestic market (internal circulation) over openness to foreign trade and investment (external circulation), despite the reassuring words of President Xi during the opening of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai on 4 November 2020.
The fact that several sectors key to Chinese development, such as the internet, energy and education sectors, have recently been taken in hand and that a growing role is being attributed to public companies – despite their low efficiency and productivity – to the detriment of a highly dynamic private sector are testament to the thinking behind such strict economic control. They also demonstrate a major turning point in the recent economic history of the country. President Xi clearly owned this turning point when he stated: “the invisible hand [market forces] and the visible hand [government intervention] must be used correctly. (…) In China, the firm direction of the Party constitutes the fundamental guarantee”.2
The European Chamber of Commerce in China in its 2021/2022 Position Paper dated 23 September 2021 expressed its concern about an insular withdrawal and urged the Chinese government to continue its work of reform and opening up to foreign companies.
The months to come will give an indication of China’s future trajectory. We can hazard that the country will be governed like a small fish is cooked, something President Xi likened to walking carefully across a thin sheet of ice.3
1 President Xi Jinping quoting the Book of the Way and its Virtue (Dao De Jing, , 道德经), The Governance of China, p.493
2 President Xi Jinping, speech during the 15th session of the Political Bureau of the XVIII Central Committee of the Communist Party, The Governance of China, p.137
3 President Xi Jinping, interview with BRICS correspondents, 19 March 2013
On 21 October 2021, Amiral Technologies announced its first round of fundraising totalling €2.8m. This represents an initial success for the start-up, founded in 2018 in Grenoble on the basis of an observation shared by numerous industrial players: how can we reliably predict breakdowns?
A spin-off of the CNRS, Amiral Technologies is based on almost 10 years of university research in artificial intelligence and automation & control theory. The company has successfully developed disruptive technology: from sensors installed on machines, detecting physical signals such as electric current, vibrations or humidity, algorithms make it possible to generate general health indicators for the equipment. These health indicators are then interpreted by unsupervised machine learning algorithms. They make it possible to identify the causes of breakdowns most likely to take place.
Unlike the majority of other solutions on the market, this solution (named DiagFit), which makes use of machine learning, does not require the history of breakdowns identified on a piece of equipment to be able to use artificial intelligence. Indeed, the algorithm is adapted to a specific use case in order to define a normalised functioning environment for the equipment.
More precise, quicker, and independent of the sensors themselves, the technology is already in use with SMEs and mid-sized businesses, as well as with large industrial groups such as Valéo, Airbus, Daher, Vinci and Thales.
The predictive maintenance market benefits from sustained growth dynamics, driven by an industrial base equipped with more and more sensors, a need to optimise inventories of spare parts and, of course, a greater need to avoid any costly shutdown in the production chain.
Amiral Technologies now aims to become the top supplier for the European market. The fundraising will enable it to strengthen its technical and commercial team, as well as to accelerate the development of DiagFit and its scientific and technological research.
Accelerating development in the hydrogen sector
For some years now, hydrogen has been presented as the miraculous solution to develop clean transport and energy storage on a large scale. The combustion of hydrogen, which produces energy, water and oxygen only, is indeed 100% clean, and we can certainly glimpse its promising potential. However, the carbon footprint of its production varies considerably depending on its origin. The hydrogen sector is not necessarily clean, and it is only decarbonised hydrogen that is stirring up so much desire.
• Historically, industrial hydrogen – also known as grey hydrogen – has been produced from fossil fuels, and its environmental record is unsatisfactory, or even poor, depending on whether the CO2 emitted during its production is captured and stored. Grey hydrogen is an inevitable by-product of oil refining (desulphurisation of oil) and ammonia production.
Today, more than 90% of the hydrogen produced in the world is grey, but this proportion is destined to fall significantly to the benefit of green and blue hydrogen.
• All eyes are now on the production of green hydrogen, that is, the hydrogen produced from decarbonised electricity (solar, wind, nuclear, and hydro power).
• Some researchers are also looking into the exploitation of white hydrogen, that is, hydrogen sourced naturally. As surprising as it may seem, knowledge of the existence and extraction possibilities of this native hydrogen is still rudimentary. For the time being, white hydrogen remains the dream of a few pioneers. Related knowledge is inchoate and accessible volumes unknown. Its research cycle and potential development will be long. If this path were to prove economically viable, it would most likely be explored by large oil producers thanks to their in-situ extraction expertise.
– Finally, big oil and petrochemical groups are calling for a transitory phase using blue hydrogen. Produced using natural gas, it can be considered clean as long as all related CO2 and methane emissions are captured.
For the decades to come, green and blue hydrogen will be the major areas of development in the energy industry. But this ambition is confronted with three constraints.
Constraint 1: Demand versus capacity
‘Nothing is more imminent than the impossible’
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Environmental expectations for the industry seem excessive today, as the requirements for energy production capacity are of titanic proportions if we are to consider decarbonising a significant share of the market. As a reminder, global energy consumption mostly serves industry (29%), ground and air transport (29%) and residential consumption (21%).
Currently, the hydrogen sector meets less than 2% of energy needs.
To cover global energy consumption in 2030, an area the size of France would need to be covered in photovoltaic solar panels, according to Land Art Generator (US). And that is assuming that these panels benefit from optimal and constant sunlight and that they give maximum yield. As observed yields from solar power today stand at 25%, the logical conclusion would mean using an area four times the size of France to achieve the same goal.
These figures help us to understand why the great powers are now considering reinvesting massively in the nuclear industry and securing their access to uranium deposits across the world. A huge redeployment of nuclear power for electricity generation might make it possible to solve the environmental equation in 50 years (climate change – IPCC objectives). Various significant issues remain to be resolved, of course, including questions of nuclear safety and the treatment and storage of nuclear waste. But given that the time scale to resolve these issues is measured more in the hundreds, if not the thousands of years, rather than in 50, some will quickly weigh up the consequences and decide.
Constraint 2: A development cycle for major projects that cannot be shortened
‘The difference between the possible and the impossible can be found in determination’
Current electrolysis processes offer a low energy yield, and the green hydrogen sector will require the construction of gigafactories, the technology, design and scale-up of which are not yet fully appreciated.
Despite all attempts to accelerate the process, we are talking about major projects, and their development cycles are standardised. There needs to be a 10 to 20 MW prototype / test site, before any 100 MW sites – currently the target entry capacity to play in the big league – can be launched.
These large projects follow the classic cycle in major project engineering as presented below. If we take as an example the liquefaction process for natural gas, which is the most similar in terms of engineering and construction complexity to that of large-scale electrolysis, between five and seven years would be necessary to go from the feasibility study to the commissioning of the test site.
Cycle d’ingénierie de grands projets
Then, if we say that feedback from the test site will be provided in parallel to the conception and feasibility studies of a gigafactory, we would need to consider five to seven additional years before the gigafactory could begin its operations. It would be reasonable to imagine that a 100 MW factory would be composed of independent units, whose installation would be sequential over an additional period of 12 to 24 months. Based on this plan, we would need to count around 15 years in total to create a gigafactory with an effective production of 100 MW.
To accelerate the development cycle of these types of project, the following levers could be activated:
• Directly selecting qualified service providers, minimising the tender phase. Based on our experience in similar major projects, the ‘open book’ selection solution makes it possible to reduce the tender offer time, all whilst maintaining effective control over capital expenditure. This lever could facilitate the truncation of the tender phase, potentially winning around 12 months.
• Beginning construction of the prototype and obtaining in parallel the administrative and environmental authorisations for the gigafactory site. This lever would make it possible to reduce the development cycle by a few months.
• Starting up the factory capacity sequentially, segmented in discrete units, and by doing so, advancing the beginning of production by up to a year.
• Launching engineering and construction of the gigafactory in parallel to the prototype and managing the feedback on process optimisation through retrofitting (a rare disruptive approach but efficient).
• Accelerating the engineering and construction cycles by financing a more expensive project and mobilising more resources at a given moment.
For even greater urgency, more disruptive levers could be applied:
• Removing certain administrative and environmental constraints and the related delays.
• Developing tools (IT and AI), making it possible to accelerate the engineering stage significantly.
• Working on smaller interlinked units able to be serially produced.
In all these cases, we must accept that the costs and risks resulting from the use of an acceleration lever will be higher than those of a traditional development cycle.
Constraint 3: Financial constraint
‘If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it’
– John Pierpont Morgan
Developing the green hydrogen sector requires massive and sustained investment. The major powers have finally understood that fact and acted: more than 30 countries have announced investments totalling almost 300 billion euros to develop the sector.
However, these substantial investments still seem insufficient when confronting the carbon behemoth menacing the planet. Based on the calculations of the Energy Transition Commission shared in April 2021, 15 trillion dollars must be invested between 2021 and 2050 to decarbonise the global energy market. That comes to 50 times more than what has been announced to date.
As Bill Gates said via his Catalyst initiative from Breakthrough Energy, the scientific, political and economic worlds have already proved their ability to support innovation in energy and to give it a favourable development framework. That is what happened in the past few decades with solar and wind energy and lithium-ion batteries.
But in 2021, we no longer have the luxury to wait decades. We must collectively make a quantum leap to accelerate decarbonisation innovation and its implementation. We are talking about not only investing in proportions that far exceed investments made in the past but also freeing ourselves of historical financial IRR models. Here is a short list of some of the actions that may be put in place:
• Sourcing a colossal amount of capital from central banks, countries, financial institutions, great fortunes and philanthropists.
• Also targeting a significant proportion of personal savings (pension funds, mutual investment funds, etc.).
• Enhancing incentives for decarbonisation technologies by implementing systems more powerful than carbon taxes and credits (the effect of which is spot), for example, using specific interest rates based on a project’s future environmental impact.
• Not providing a financial return (IRR) for some of the capital invested. The expected return would become mostly environmental…
– Breakthrough Energy, a non-profit organisation, raised over a billion euros for its Catalyst initiative at the end of September 2021.
• Putting in place environmental reporting that is as reliable as financial reporting.
Investments in decarbonisation are revolutionising finance through their magnitude and the nature of their expected return; this will be environmental, not financial.
Philosopher, Partner at Wemean
Culturally, China functions as our opposite: its customs, mental models and rituals are highly compelling to us. To our great benefit, the philosopher François Jullien insists, seeing in Chinese thought a valuable means of decentring ourselves and leaving behind the certainties of Western culture – particularly binarism, a lack of nuance and the constant use of force in the name of logic.1 That in no way means that we must consider this other perspective to be right, but experiencing absolute difference, as the other perspective invites us to do, often allows us to choose new paths for ourselves.
Amongst the most fascinating elements, there is the way in which Chinese society always seems to react ‘as one’: collective expression there is unanimous. Of course, the nature of the political regime and its current toughening stance with regard to the expression of any form of singularity or standing out from the crowd have much to do with it. Nevertheless, China has always represented the polar opposite of individualism and communitarianism, which, in the West, have led to the loss of a sense of public interest.
To picture this collective movement in its entirety, we might think of Hobbes’ Leviathan with the famous image on the frontispiece of the work presenting the body of the king composed of the masses of individuals from the kingdom, who, if we look more closely, have no faces, their being fully turned towards the face of the sovereign. This detail reminds us of the danger of using organic metaphors to talk about societies: they may well claim to mean that if the parts are there for the whole, the whole is also there for the parts; however, often the parts end up cowering before the whole…
A hive or even a murmuration (the natural phenomenon seen with large flocks of birds or schools of fish moving in concert, with each animal seeming to follow some form of choreography laid out in advance, without any individual leading the movement) might also provide, at first glance, images suggestive of the collective movements of which the Chinese are capable. But, of course, we must not linger over such animal analogies; the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss rightly considered them to be the beginning of barbarousness, tantamount as they are to denying the human quality of the other culture.2
Though none of these metaphors depicts a desirable model, the fact remains that this way of functioning ‘as one’ holds up a negative mirror to us: how can we overcome the impasse of the ‘society of individuals’ (Norbert Elias), which characterises a model of Western society where any higher interest seems to have been lost? How can we find something like a collective impulse? What if our individual impulses made us want a collective impulse in the first place?3 Leaving behind individualism does not mean annihilating the individual; it is an invitation to stop looking only at oneself and to move towards shared achievements. Between the West and China, between atomism and holism, a third path is possible.
1 François Jullien, A treatise on efficacy (1996).
2 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (1952).
3 Sophie Chassat has recently released Élan Vital: Antidote philosophique au vague à l’âme contemporain, Calmann-Lévy editions (October 2021).
Entrepreneurship Academic Director, Ecole Polytechnique
It’s 2009. Kevin Systrom (soon joined by his co-founder, Mike Krieger) is working on a geolocation social media project, similar to Foursquare. Together, they manage to convince Baseline Ventures and Andressen Horowitz to invest $500,000 in the project. This enables them to dedicate themselves full time to the adventure. A year later, Burbn is launched in the form of an iPhone application that makes it possible to save locations, plan outings, post photos, etc. The application is downloaded massively, but the verdict is not quite what they hope for: the users, beta-testers, don’t like it at all. Too cluttered, too messy, it’s confusing and most of them have stopped using it. A patent failure. All this being very normal, the entrepreneur digests the feedback, learns from the experience and moves on to a new adventure. The metrics are bad – duly noted. And yet Kevin Systrom doesn’t stop there because he notices something that at first glance seems trivial: the photo sharing function (one amongst so many others) seems to be used by a small number of regular users… He investigates, questions these users and realises that the small group loves this function (and only this one). Instagram is born, all from the happy realisation that a small number of people, hidden in the multitudes that didn’t like Burbn, use the app for one reason.
This story highlights a counter-intuitive principle for the educated manager: numbers lie in the beginning. Burbn’s metrics were catastrophic. The rational response would have been to acknowledge that fact and move on to the next project. But a weak signal was hiding there, showing potential.
The story of Viagra follows a similar pattern. Pfizer laboratories were developing a blood pressure regulator, which was in phase III of testing before gaining market authorisation. If we remember that the development of a new molecule represents an investment of approximately $1bn, that would mean around $700m to $800m had already been invested in the project. Pressure was therefore high to achieve this authorisation as soon as possible. It just so happened that someone in Pfizer’s teams noticed that some people in the test sample hadn’t returned the pills that should have been left over as part of the procedure given to them. Who pays attention to that? Some incoherent data, with no direct link to the topic (efficiency of the molecule)… A few abnormal results in a table of 300 columns and 100,000 rows… And yet, by investigating, this person realised that those who weren’t giving back the extra pills all shared the same characteristics of age and sex. Pfizer then realised that this blood pressure regulator had an unexpected side effect so interesting that the project changed course entirely.
A simple observation lies behind these examples that we can compare endlessly an innovative project, a start-up that is just starting up, they are adventures to be explored.
Exploring first means remembering that you don’t know what works and what doesn’t work in your idea. It’s recognising that you’re facing complex issues, that you don’t quite grasp all the variables of these issues and don’t understand how the variables interact, or their effects.
From that starting point comes the following consequence, the subject of this article: you don’t know what to measure and you don’t know the meaning of what you’re measuring. This goes both ways: what might initially seem like poor metrics, as in the case of Burbn, can hide a gem. But the opposite is also true. We have recently worked with a start-up developing a smart object for well-being, aimed at the public at large. The company quickly sold some tens of thousands of the product, and based on this success, raised funds to scale up quickly and control the market, only to find that its sales, far from growing, plateaued and then fell. It turns out that 30,000 products being sold wasn’t the sign of massive and rapid market adoption, but the majority of the addressable market. After a period of trying different things, questioning themselves, doubting and researching, the start-up’s founders finally found a B2B market, centred on a service offer based on the smart object. The irony is that its strong early figures didn’t mean that it had found its market.
These observations lead to two simple and practical recommendations, which seem almost trivial when writing them, but they can be slippery in their application:
1. Remember that the only way to progress in a complex environment is through experimentation. Trial and error. Keep what works. Eliminate what doesn’t. Understanding will come later. Pixar has always applied this empirical approach to the extreme. From a starting concept, Pixar tests everything. There have been, throughout the production process, 43,536 variations of Nemo, 69,562 of Ratatouille and 98,173 of Wall-E… That’s the path between initial idea and final success.
2. Give yourself the tools to ‘capture’ weak signals, that is, put strategies in place to save what seems irrelevant in one instant but which could be useful later. Remember that at a given moment, in the first life of an innovative project, no one is able to determine what is relevant and what is not.
Unfortunately, the human mind is wired in such a way as to try to give early meaning to the information that comes to it, which leads to neglecting the need to test everything (because we’ve already understood) and to filtering out noise (because we’ve already identified the signal)… These are probably the two deadly sins of the innovator or the start-up entrepreneur.
China – when one risk may hide another!
Senior Economic Adviser, Accuracy
When we look at the Chinese economy, in this early autumn, two dynamics emerge. First, from a macroeconomic perspective, we can note very disappointing GDP growth during the third quarter of the year. As was forecast by Bloomberg’s economic consensus, one of the most viewed forecast aggregates, performance barely got off the mark (+0.2%, quarter on quarter). This phenomenon may not last long, however, and from the fourth quarter, the country may return to its previous performance level (around 1.5%, quarter on quarter). But even if we accept the forecasts, is there not a risk of being taken by surprise again in the near future?
China: the slump may not last
Second, and this time from a microeconomic perspective, we have the Evergrande issue. It is the country’s largest property developer, which, over time, has transformed into a type of conglomerate. It is unable to pay its debts and coupons that are falling due. And it is fair to say that its debts are high: over 300 billion dollars in total or almost 2% of the country’s GDP, including 90 billion in financial debt (bank loans and bonds), 150 billion in commercial debt (including deposits from off-plan buyers), and 80 billion off balance sheet (essentially investment products issued by the company). Available cash would only cover 40% of its short-term debt (maturing within 12 months). Before starting a carve-out process for some of the assets, it was estimated that a fire sale would involve a debt haircut of some 50%.
We should note that the Evergrande case, however iconic and high profile the company may be, is not unique. Other developers are putting themselves in defaulting positions, even when they are able to pay what they owe. They use the toughening regulation, which hinders their business development considerably and try to ensure their creditors are the ones with the losing hand. Or, to put it another way, they try to create enough scandal or public difficulty to force the public authorities to revise their attitude.
Evergrande: asset prices clearly falling
A major credit event in a suddenly deteriorated economic environment gives us a more worrying outlook: what if China was no longer a centre of stability in a world that very much needs one?
The Xi Administration (based on the name of President Xi Jinping) has started a restructuring/consolidation phase for the country’s economy, with the aim of reinforcing its fundamentals. It no doubt considered the international environment to be favourable to such an action. The decline of the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of global growth and a theoretically more cooperative US president should create sufficiently promising external demand conditions to compensate any ‘blunders’ in domestic spending that the reforms (even if conceived and implemented well) would doubtless cause.
However, as is often the case in life, things have not gone exactly according to plan.
The Beijing government started with three areas: real estate, debt and inequality. Work on all three must be reduced.
Let us start with real estate. Its total weight in the Chinese economy, taking into account upstream and downstream effects, is estimated at between 25% and 30%. The scale is reminiscent of what we saw in Spain or Ireland before the Great Recession in 2008. Might we do well to take this similarity as an invitation to prevent rather than to cure, after the real estate bubble bursts? Moreover, real estate needs have become less significant (apart from the considerable wave of migration from the countryside to cities), whilst prices have skyrocketed. An average of 42 m2 per person in a dwelling is perfectly comparable to what we can see in major Western European countries. However, the ratio of property prices to average household income is over 40 in Beijing or Shanghai (2018 figures). Though comparable to the ratio for Hong Kong, it is significantly higher than its equivalent for London or Paris (around 20), not to mention New York (12). This level observed in large Chinese cities is only understandable if economic growth and demographics remain sufficiently strong to justify a highly dynamic demand for property and therefore to maintain expectations of property price increases. We know that the demographics are not heading in this direction, and we sense that the potential GDP growth is slowing…
Preventing the formation of a real estate bubble could be seen as a pressing obligation. First, is it not necessary to preserve the financial system’s ability to take the initiative at a time of structural change in the economy? The system’s exposure to the real estate sector is significant, between 50% and 60% of total bank loans granted. Second, less investment in real estate would facilitate, all else being equal, increased investment in capital goods or intellectual property products. Measures of both productivity and economic growth could find themselves improved
Credit exposure in real estate sector
Chine: heading towards a new breakdown in fixed investment?
Now let us talk about debt. Debt in non-financial corporates is high; in fact, it is among the highest in major countries around the globe. It represents 160% of the country’s GDP. Of course, we can highlight the much more reasonable levels noted for households and public authorities and therefore talk about a very ‘presentable’ average. But embarking on economic reforms, which will most certainly create losers as well as the expected winners, starting from a situation with a high level of debt in the corporate sector is uncomfortable. This is even more so the case when we consider the ricochet effect on the financial system of the difficulties facing a certain number of companies.
We must therefore understand that the importance given to greater stability in the financial system risks weighing on economic growth. As we highlighted previously, this is another reason to ensure more efficient investment signposting – towards where there is the greatest potential for long-lasting and inclusive growth.
Debt of non-financial Chinese companies among the highest
The thread that runs from real estate to debt leads to inequalities. These inequalities are too great, and Beijing is aiming to reduce them. The Chinese real estate ‘adventure’ described above, in addition to the development of the technology sector and its consequent outperformance of the market, has contributed to an increase in inequalities, now putting them at the same level as in the United States. The richest 1% holds 30% of the wealth of all households in China, a proportion that doubled in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015. For Beijing, this development seems to carry the risk of challenging political stability. Is it not understandable then that the middle class should call for a reduction in these inequalities?
China: inegality becoming a political matter
No sooner said than done, we might wish to say; after all, President Xi is not one to dawdle. A large number of measures have been implemented to effect this triple ambition. Many relate to the technology and real estate sectors and encourage greater moral standards from the country’s citizens. The table below provides a summary of the changes.
China: a significant catalogue of party/government initiatives
But all this has a destabilising effect! Ensuring parallelism between the impact of decisions that will suppress growth (real estate, finance and technology) and the impact of those to come that will boost it (aim to increase added-value content of the Chinese economy, less dependence on foreign countries, and ‘healthy’ stimulation of domestic demand, to mention what we currently understand) will require significant skill in economic policy. Even in what remains a relatively nationalised system, it will be quite a challenge. Benefitting from a favourable external environment is certainly a ‘pressing obligation’ for Beijing today – never mind if, at least at first, it flies in the face of the ambition to become more autonomous from the rest of the world. Are we there yet?
Not really – with such a complicated international environment (from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not yet disappeared, to persistent Sino-American tensions, not to mention a global economy that is still recovering), it will be necessary to arbitrate between the desirable (domestic reforms) and the possible (degrees of freedom offered by the economic context and external policies). That will mean accelerating when possible and slowing down when necessary. It will be an arduous task for the person in charge of economic policy, not to mention ensuring that the business community falls in line. It will not always be easy!