In Exotec’s entrance hall, photos of employees are lined up on the walls and form a kind of guard of honor for those who need to climb to the top. One way of remembering is that the successes of this unicorn selling robots for logistics warehouses around the world are the result of intense collective work.
But this work of art, which began once the start-up moved to Croix (Nord), caused serious internal problems: the speed of recruitment became so intense that there was no more space available on the walls to hang new photo. The
It’s true that the start-up is now similar to an industrial group, with more than 300 employees divided between France, Germany, the United States and Japan. And this is just the beginning: the robotics champion plans to hire 500 more people in the coming years!
The pilgrimage of politicians
So the company decided to move again. It has just signed a twelve year lease to live in an area of nearly 25,000 m2 in Wasquehal, still in the suburb of Lille. The future headquarters, christened the “Imaginarium”, will open into the Roubaix canal and can accommodate 1,000 employees. It will be delivered in the first quarter of 2024 and should help start-ups reach new levels.
The development of Exotec is a description of the sudden acceleration of French Tech, which is now being watched with curiosity across Europe. But the young shoot established by Romain Moulin at Renaud Heitz remains a funny exception: it is, at this stage, the only tricolor industrial unicorn. It is not for nothing that the nugget has become a place of pilgrimage for politicians, who have nothing else but to worry about their attachment to factories.
In December 2021, Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, for example, parked there “holding hands”. In mid-January, it was the opportunity for Cédric O, the Secretary of State for Digital, and Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the Minister in charge of Industry, to go there to unveil the outlines of a 2.3 billion euro plan intended to obtain. young industrial companies out of the ground. “There’s no need to go to meetings: there are politicians here every week,” laughed an engineer from home.
The Spark Jeff Bezos
In a region traumatized by the closures of mines and textile giants, the rise of Exotec has a strong symbolic charge. The installation of this start-up in this former socialist bastion was a combination of circumstances … Founded in 2015, Exotec made its first steps inside the incubator of the Télécom Paris school (formerly Télécom ParisTech) . But, very quickly, the founders understood that they would need additional square meters to complete their project. So they began to look forward to the whole of France.
“At the end of the process, Nantes, Lyon and Lille grabbed the rope,” Renaud Heitz recalled. Ultimately, the capital of Flanders was chosen: the cheap land, the abundant talent pool on site and the location at a logistical crossroad between Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom made the difference. . But, after a year, the start-up is already feeling crowded in Lille and set up in Croix, a few kilometers away.
The Exotec project was born out of a common passion for robotics and a belief that warehouse automation was an unstoppable tidal wave. It is also the story of a rare collusion with Tech. Romain Moulin and Renauld Heitz met at BA Systèmes, a company specializing in the design of intralogistics solutions with automated trolleys, in the mid-2000s. “We measured their respective strengths and we immediately liked the working together ”, commented Renaud Heitz.
“GE not only taught us how to design a product to work, but also to sell, deploy, maintain and, later, recycle.”
Romain Moulin, c.founder of Exotec
The two engineers then joined General Electric Medical. An establishment experience. “GE not only taught us to design a product so that it would work, but also to sell, deploy, maintain and, later, recycle,” insists Romain Moulin, who “has a heartache” thinking the decline of the American group, which has long been one of the most powerful conglomerates on the planet.
At “GE”, Romain Moulin and Renaud Heitz worked on robots to perform informational radiology and 3D mammography. In 2012, they were hit by the acquisition of Amazon’s Kiva Systems. Cost of operation: 775 million dollars. At the time, it was the second largest takeover in Jeff Bezos ’group history. Two years later, Amazon chose to close the commercial department of Kiva Systems to have sole ownership.
“That was one of the sparks,” Renaud Heitz recalled. The partners then decided to co-found Exotec. On a strong initial intuition: the future belongs to order selection systems that work with robots capable of moving in three dimensions. One way to make the most of the height under the ceiling of warehouses that, in the age of e-commerce, are approaching large cities.
The winning party of 360Capital and Breega
Over the course of six months, the friends increased the number of visits to the warehouses to better identify the needs of their future customers. Then they knock on investors ’doors. To prove their knowledge, Romain Moulin and Renaud Heitz notably created prototype robots that were possible to test.
360 Capital and Breega were the first venture capitalists to believe in it and could hit the jackpot should Exotec go public. “Early -stage investments are always a gamble,” said smiling Alexandre Mordacq, General Partner at 360 Capital and board member of Exotec. Their project is innovative. They already envisioned robots evolving in 3D. It allows you to project yourself. “
The latter is the future Skypods, small robots that prepare orders in logistics warehouses and include racks that allow storage of goods up to approximately 10 meters high. The robots work thanks to Astar, a software built in -house. “Exotec makes hardware and software, which is rare in tech,” said Arnaud Helle, who invested in the company with BPI.
Once launched on the right path, Exotec took the first big step by offering Cdiscount. Word of mouth then did the rest. The start-up is now working with players like Decathlon, Carrefour, Uniqlo, Patatam, Geodis, Monoprix, Gap, etc.
“Exotec is moving to a new suitable technology that sees warehouse robots directly carrying individual bins to order pickers. This market is expected to reach approximately $ 3 billion by 2025.” .
Chloe StarksInteract Analysis analyst
As it grew, the nugget regularly raised funds (3.3 million euros in 2016, 15 million in 2018, 90 million in 2020). Then the spirits were hurt, last January, by the completion of a $ 335 million funding round led by Goldman Sachs and the BPI. Exotec thus became 25at unicorn of French Tech, worth 2 billion dollars. A symbolic milestone praised by President Macron in a video.
The presence of a powerful American bank in the capital of Exotec says a lot about its changing status. “Goldman Sachs has great international reach. It will open doors for us in the United States and help us in recruitment,” Romain Moulin is convinced. A sign of the importance of the American market, Exotec has opened an office in Atlanta. Eventually, one of the start-up’s co-founders could settle across the Atlantic to ensure its commercial development.
Away from the party trends
The start-up thrills investors because it has a high level of products and is growing hard. In 2018, it generated 7.4 million in turnover. In 2020, it will be 42.9 million and the 105 million mark will be exceeded in 2021. “I’m not too wet in telling you that we should earn about 200 million by 2022”, Romain Moulin expects.
The company has visibility because it takes approximately six months between signing the contract and installing the robots at a customer’s site. For the sake of transparency, unicorn publishes its accounts every year. A legal obligation, but where most other French unicorns sit, preferring to pay fines …
“Exotec is moving to a new suitable technology that sees warehouse robots directly carrying individual bins to order pickers. This market is estimated at 270 million dollars by 2021. However, it should it has grown very rapidly and will reach approximately 3 billion dollars by 2025 ”, decrypts Chloé Starks, analyst at Interact Analysis. Northern society is driven by the e-commerce boom and growing tensions in the job market to recruit people in logistics warehouses.
Unicorn bosses are known for their deep knowledge of the robotics market and their attention to detail. They don’t go to trendy parties in Paris-which some French Tech heavyweights love-and have a desire to build an industrial giant. “They are highly complementary in their approach, their vision and their management”, Arnaud Helle observes. “They have blind faith in each other,” Alexandre Mordacq added.
No cathedrals: modular
But to grow, Exotec needs to keep changing. In addition to Skypods, the company has, for example, developed Skypicker, a robotic arm capable of retrieving products from storage bins, then placing them in order picking bins. “We don’t build steel cathedrals. We’re developing very modular solutions that deploy faster, “Romain Moulin explains. A company can add robots as needed, or even move them from one site to another. .Flexibility is highly appreciated.
Industrial unicorn assembly lines also have the advantage of being easily reproducible. This has allowed it to respond, each time, to increasing demand in recent years. Rising prices for raw materials and chips, as well as the raging talent war in Tech, seem to be the only obstacles on the way to getting started.
Ultimately, Exotec aims to be a fully robotized warehouse vendor to help e-merchants prepare orders faster. Among its rivals, the northern company has traditional automation players (Dematic, Daifuku, Knapp, Honeywell) but also has young shoots with long teeth (Fabric, Attabotics). But Romain Moulin is confident in his strength and in the advancement of his company’s technology. “Goldman Sachs also knows them. But they chose to invest in Exotec. »