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Achieving radical innovation through symbiotic acquisition

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45
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Majalah:
Organizational Dynamics
DOI:
10.1016/j.orgdyn.2015.12.002
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January, 2016
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Organizational Dynamics (2016) 45, 11—17

Available online at www.sciencedirect.com

ScienceDirect
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/orgdyn

Achieving radical innovation through
symbiotic acquisition§
Olivier Meier 1, Guillaume Schier 1

ACHIEVING RADICAL INNOVATION THROUGH
SYMBIOTIC ACQUISITION
Evidence shows that radical innovation is important for longterm firm success. There are still strong uncertainties about
the way companies could achieve such innovations. Internal
growth has been extensively studied as a way to develop
value-enhancing innovations. External growth through mergers or acquisitions appeared more recently as a new option
to innovate by acquiring successful startups, leading to a
form of technology risk and market risk externalization. For
example, in 2014 Google Inc. acquired DeepMind Technologies for more than $400 millions. In 2012, Oracle acquired
several technological startups, such as Taleo ($1.9 billion)
and Vitrue ($ 300 million). Another example is the acquisition
of Zappos ($1.2 billion) by Amazon.
If innovation can be achieved by finding new ways to
combine resources or competencies, managers may wonder
whether it is possible to achieve such innovation by combining
internal and external resources through acquisitions. Instead
of acquiring on the market ready-to-use innovations, firms
could also acquire targets to achieve radical innovation by
combining both the acquirer and target’s specific resources
(e.g. Google Inc.’s acquisition of DeepMind Technologies). This
external growth strategy, oriented toward innovation, is called
‘‘symbiotic acquisition’’. Our objective is to describe what the
main and specific features of this strategic option are and to
understand how managers can proceed to generate radical
innovation through this type of acquisition.
This article is structured as follows. First, we describe what
is and what is not a symbiotic acquisition. We differentiate
§

This article was accepted by the former editors, Fred Luthans and
John Slocum.
1
The authors’ ; names are in alphabetical order, as both have
contributed equally to the development of this paper.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2015.12.002
0090-2616/# 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

between collaborative acquisition and symbiotic acquisitions
and focus on two specific characteristics of symbiotic acquisitions: its initial strategic intents and the framing of its integration process. Second, we put an emphasis on the role of
organizational initial conditions, initial viewpoints of both
parties and potential ‘‘conflicts’’ between the acquirer and
the target. Finally, we put forward some managerial implications from both our theoretical work and professional experiences in the management of symbiotic acquisitions.

WHAT IS AND WHAT IS NOT A SYMBIOTIC
ACQUISITION?
Symbiotic Acquisition is Not a Collaborative
Acquisition
Symbiotic acquisition goes beyond simple collaborative
acquisition, although they share some similarities. While
collaborative acquisitions favor cost synergies and sharing
of resources, symbiotic acquisitions aim to create something
that does not exist yet on the market (radical innovation).
Symbiotic acquisitions are riskier operations. Their purpose is
to change permanently and profoundly the rules of the
competitive game. Symbiotic acquisition, like collaborative
acquisition, emphasizes a ‘‘merger of equals’’ attitude,
which aims to preserve the target’s identity and to avoid
any asymmetric relationship where the acquirer would dominate the target.
The emergence of new forms of acquisitions referred to as
collaborative or cooperative acquisitions, such as Air
France—KLM, American Airlines—US Airways or Renault—Nissan, has already provided a glimpse of the changes in how to
differently manage relations between the acquirer and the
acquiree. The acquisition may lead to collaborative relationships and not simply to a logic based on domination. Napier
proposed a theoretical model of collaborative acquisitions,

12

O. Meier, G. Schier

highlighting the attitude of the acquirer with respect to the
acquired business, particularly with regard to the balance of
power changes within the new entity.

The Merger of Air France—KLM
The merger of Air France—KLM illustrates key features to be
taken into account when managing non-asymmetric acquisitions. The main strategic aim of this acquisition was to build a
world leader together around a simple but original idea of
‘‘one Group, two Airlines’’. At the time of the operation,
Jean-Cyril Spinetta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of
Air France, said:
‘‘We have always been convinced of the necessity of
consolidation in the airline industry. Today, we announce
a combination with KLM that will create the first European
airline group, which is a milestone in our industry. This will
bring significant benefits to customers, shareholders and
employees. Capitalizing on the two brands and on the
complementary strengths of both companies, we should,
within SkyTeam, be able to capture enhanced growth
opportunities.’’
Source: Air France Annual Report
Everything was done to avoid the adverse effects of a
merger: partnership governance, safeguarding the national
identities of Air France and KLM, logos and brand; no discrimination in promotion decisions; Long-term sharing of
‘‘centers of excellence’’; and Air-political status (Air France
and KLM retain their respective home bases, operating
licenses, Air Transport Certificates and traffic rights). Similarly, priority has been given to growth synergies and cost
synergies, with limited job losses, a preference for cooperation and sharing on issues of rationalization (largely confined
to peripheral activities).

The Case of Renault—Nissan
Renault—Nissan is a significant example of this type of policy.
As Carlos Ghosn (CEO of Renault-Nissan) noted the aim of the
merger was to transform a volume-oriented company into a
customer-oriented profitable company. At least three conditions have emerged as essential: the revival of Nissan, the
strategy of profitable and consistent growth of all Renault—
Nissan in a balanced approach to partnership and, finally, the
existence of two separate identities and strong brands. The
first condition in the short term has been the financial
recovery of Nissan. Nissan had to approximate the performance of Renault. The logic was clear: what is good for Nissan
is good for Renault. The second requirement was to develop
synergies between the two companies in order to provide
Renault—Nissan a coherent and coordinated strategy for
profitable growth. The third essential element was the absolute and inviolable respect for each brand in a comprehensive
and shared vision.

Symbiotic Acquisition’s Strategic Intent is to
Innovate
The acquisition of symbiosis is an original model that goes
beyond collaborative acquisition. It aims to reconcile two

strategic options that are often separated: radical innovation
and acquisitions. It allows combining resources to create new
resources on the market. Symbiotic acquisition is a very
interesting mode of development in the case of a merger
between big business and small innovative companies (e.g.
Apple Inc.’s acquisition of Soundjam in 2000). These acquisitions are carried out especially in mature industries (automotive, mechanical, heavy industry) or in threatened
industries where business survival is a critical issue. They
also concern certain sectors marked by technological turbulence and high competitive intensity (Internet, computing,
telecommunications, innovative services...).
At the strategic level, the decision to conduct symbiotic
acquisitions is particularly relevant when the acquirer must
respond to a threat or an external shock (strategic response).

The Case of Mediamétrie—eStat
In France, the merger ‘‘Médiamétrie—eStat’’ is an example of
a joint innovation-oriented operation, whose objectives go
beyond economies of scale and scope, market share, critical
size and financial security. There are new objectives, paving
the way for a change in the perception of the acquisition and
its implications for businesses. As Mr. Bisac, co-founder of eStat said:
‘‘The principal objective of the merger was to develop an
innovative audience-rating tool, by combining the specific
know-how of the user- and site-centric technologies into a
single tool to provide customers with information on both
their web sites and the web site visitors’’.
This merger was a response to market needs and the
combination of data was expected to lead to an innovative
‘‘universal’’ audience-rating tool. The two companies also
hoped to attain their ultimate objective of becoming market
leaders in audience-rating tools. For Mediametrie, this
objective was linked to the desire to position itself as the
benchmark in the Internet market and to maintain its brand
image and reputation. For eStat, the merger was vital for its
survival (financial stability).
A symbiotic acquisition is no longer simply a means to
capture resources, increase market power or achieve cost
savings. It also helps to create new strategic interdependencies with the acquiree, to provide systems, services or products with high added value, to meet the new requirements
of the environment.

Symbiotic Acquisition Can be Defined by its
Integration Process
What are the differences between symbiotic acquisition and
other acquisition policies? Symbiotic acquisition gives rise to
the establishment of a single authority system controlled by
the acquirer as with any other acquisition. However, it
attempts to rethink the business model of the acquirer, by
imposing new logic in business strategy and value creation.
Symbiotic acquisitions are riskier. They cannot rely on programmed actions. They aim to encourage initiatives and
diverse viewpoints with the ability to accept unforeseen
events and some disorder during the interactions between
the acquirer and the acquiree.

Achieving radical innovation through symbiotic acquisition

The Case of the Acquisition of Finorex by Fortica
To understand the implications of symbiotic acquisitions, we
develop a real in-depth case study: the acquisition of Finorex
by Fortica. Finorex (134 employees) and Fortica (3,200
employees) are two firms from the automotive industry in
France that produce similar products for the same customers
but with completely different technological bases. We conducted this study over a period of more than 2 years. During
this period, we were able to interview more than sixty people
from the acquirer and the target. Identifying details of
managers and firms have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
The acquisition of FINOREX fits into the framework of a
symbiotic acquisition. We reproduced the justifications set
out by the CEO of Fortica concerning the choice to acquire
the company Finorex.
‘‘Creation of new product lines by evolving from manufacture of raw parts to complex assemblies or functions,
pooling the know-how of the two companies in the
framework of a management system privileging the
concept of value creation.’’ (CEO of Fortica, Annual
report)
This acquisition seems to correspond to a choice of the
acquirer (Fortica) to focus on the creation of new resources,
based on the qualities of each company. The intention of
achieving radical innovation through the acquisition of
Finorex has been more explicitly stated in Fortica’s annual
report:
‘‘The structure created (. . .) has a number of unique
assets, among which expertise on several complementary
processes capable of satisfying multiple, differentiated
needs.’’ [. . .] ‘‘Its aims to create a real competitive edge
based on the technical features of each company and to
propose innovative products.’’ [. . .]‘‘We hope to create
something that does not yet exist on the market’’
Source: Fortica Annual Report
‘‘Our ambition was to create a new group, different from
those that existed at the time, by privileging innovation
over cost control, taking advantage of the strengths of the
two companies. Price is a given but cannot be a strategy in
itself, except by putting all efforts into that. But we are
not the biggest.’’ (CEO of Fortica)
What are the characteristics of the integration process
and how the acquirer (Fortica) intends to manage its relationship with the acquiree (Finorex)? Under a single management
team headed by Fortica’s CEO, the new group (Fortica &
Finorex) set up a new organization. The two main features of
this new organization were the following: (1) no interference
by the acquiring firm in the target’s business processes and
(2) maintaining of the acquiree’s top executives in their
initial positions.
‘‘The main topics already identified are as follows: each
company has its own technical, economic and human
features and characteristics that justify preserving it.
Each company preserves a wide measure of autonomy
in the areas of organization and research.’’
Source: Fortica Annual Report

13
The acquirer sought to develop cooperation in terms of
R&D and product development but with no intention to
dominate the acquired firm. Many decisions made by the
acquirer confirmed its efforts to implement a symbiotic
integration process in order to jointly develop new resources:
preservation of the target’s identity and organizational
boundaries, preservation of local infrastructure and management, a consistent communication around a common objective to develop cooperation between Fortica and Finorex, the
creation of various joint committees (with no domination
from the acquirer) and finally the creation of a permanent
interface structure, including senior executives of both companies, set up to facilitate the communication and the
collaboration between the two companies. The new group
is therefore the result of an integration policy. It is focused on
the need to preserve the entities and the development of
creative cooperation between companies linked by hierarchical relationships.
Within less than 2 years, this acquisition has created
innovative new offerings on the market, allowing the two
combined companies to be proactive and change the nature
of the power relationship with their customers. The business
model of Fortica (the acquirer) has also been transformed,
with the development of new partnerships and more complex
applications, combining a set of knowledge and rarely associated techniques from both the acquirer and the target.
In the following section, we describe, using a psychosociological framework, the organizational mechanisms
which allow the new group to achieve this type of radical
innovation.

HOW TO GENERATE RADICAL INNOVATION
THROUGH ACQUISITION: A PSYCHOSOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
Research by S. Moscovici on dynamics engendered by the
confrontation in a social system between a majority and a
minority sheds light on the nature of interactions between an
acquirer (majority) and an acquiree (minority) and how these
interactions can generate radical innovation. It constitutes a
useful and interesting tool to help us understand the
dynamics at work between the acquirer and acquiree in a
complex innovation process. Through this psycho-sociological perspective, we can then identify several initial conditions that must be satisfied to generate radical innovations
from the interaction between an acquirer and an acquired
company.

The Role of Initial Strategic and Organizational
Context
If the strategic intent of a symbiotic acquisition is clearly to
create innovation, managers cannot adopt a proactive attitude, as the achievement of radical innovations will depend
on the strategic and organizational context of the new group.
However, managers can foster organizational conditions that
would allow radical innovation to emerge.
Innovation and change of beliefs, norms and practices in a
social group (for example, post-acquisition integration team)
are likely to occur when the dominant group (acquirer) has no
a priori approach or specific perspective on a new problem

14
which will arise through a modification of the strategic
context of the firm. In the case of Finorex, innovation is
marked by the adoption of new practices in terms of product
development mainly inspired by the norms and values of the
acquired firm. Initially in the minority position, the acquiree’s management suggests new practices around a combined
technological process to solve a strategic issue raised by a
major client (a leading French car manufacturer). The innovation was radical in two dimensions: the technological
dimension as it combines two technologies, one from the
acquirer and one from the acquiree firm; and a mixed
commercial and technical dimension as it implies a new
relationship between the technical team from the clients
and the technical team from Finorex and Fortica.
In this case, the minority (acquiree) prevents the group
from adopting a compromise position and suggests a position
likely to attract other members. The group innovates by
adopting the position initiated by the minority. It can be
considered that the acquirer (majority) and the acquiree
(minority) can — and should — have a reciprocal influence.
The purpose of the active minority is to impose its views, to
replace those of the majority (alternative). To become a
source of influence, the message of the acquired entity must
be presented in a consistent and unified manner. The minority
must behave consistently. However, for successful symbiosis,
the influence of the majority must exist: it must integrate
and validate the minority position in its strategy.
Dilemmas (lack of norms from the acquirer), uncertainties
(absence of leadership) and contradictions (non-unanimous
majority) lie at the heart of a reconsidered model of integration. These complex requirements should not be seen as
anomalies. They are fundamental conditions for the success
of the symbiosis (experimentation, acquiree initiatives, new
approaches). It is therefore necessary not to deny or minimize them. Instead, they must be valued to offer innovative
strategic responses that were not necessarily intended or
desired.

The Role of Initial Viewpoints of Both Parties
The acquirer (Fortica) did not have an original approach or
specific response to guide the search for a solution. We
suggest a new perspective to understand the dynamics
between the acquirer and the acquiree that led to this
successful radical innovation.
At a very general level, our observations show that the
Finorex teams were able to innovate by suggesting new
organizational practices and combining two technological
processes, one from each company.
We analyzed the composition of the several working
groups set up by Finorex and Fortica to develop the initial
suggestion made by Finorex. These working groups consisted
of members from both companies, whose approaches and
strategic aims were totally different. These differences are
particularly marked by the history of both companies: Fortica
was focused on sales growth and characterized by a volume
and low cost strategy, whereas Finorex was focused on value
creation and consistently followed a strategy of differentiation.
These strategic differences did not translate into an
opposition of new norms and values. To address the problem,

O. Meier, G. Schier
Finorex was able to offer a norm to guide the search for a
solution. Conversely, members of the acquirer had no specific
approach or perspective. They did not know how to solve the
problem, based on their business model and their existing
skills. Given its position, the acquirer is the non-unanimous
majority, and Finorex is, in this context, the consistent
minority.
Representations and new practices can be considered as
resulting from the type of conflict involved with the positions
and norms advocated by different parties. In the case of
Finorex, the new business approach has emerged under the
influence of members of the acquired company — initially in a
minority position — whose proposal was a pole of attraction
for members of the acquirer who had no specific perspective
to oppose it on the issue.

The Role of ‘‘Conflicts’’ Between the Acquirer
and the Target
If interactions between members of Fortica and Finorex have
not been marked by frontal conflicts, they were not consensus orientated. Ideas and diverse viewpoints from both
parties were seen as sources of inspiration and new ideas.
The type of relationship can be illustrated by the way
Finorex management was able to develop ‘‘its’’ solution to
solve the new problem raised by the major car manufacturer
to Fortica. Three days after that the acquirer’s Sales Director
reported to Fortica’s top management the new requirements
of the car manufacturer (one of the main clients of Fortica).
Every business unit from Fortica and Finorex was informed
and moved to quickly solve the problem (the development of
new hollow metal parts with complex geometry requiring the
combined used of hot forging processes and cold forging).
Finorex’s CEO directly contacted Fortica’s Sales Director, and
a workshop was organized. At the end of the week, the
solution suggested by Finorex was validated by Fortica’s
CEO. The following week, the outline of the solution was
finalized both from a technological and organizational point
of view.
Before the other units of the acquirer had time to establish the norm of the compromise and to set up a rational
approach to solve the problem (clear goals, consensus, uniformization), the team of the acquiree had a decisive influence on the outcome by proposing a ‘‘symbiotic’’ solution to
the problem raised. Although the intrinsic quality of the
solution proposed by Finorex cannot be totally neglected,
it is this interruption of the normalization process that is
essential.
The process of developing this new approach is thus
marked by quick and direct expression of the proposal from
the general direction of Finorex. This logic is based on a
relatively spontaneous relationship mode between the parties (emerging actions). The involvement of members of the
management teams of Finorex (free initiatives), the existence of specific and original norms (dissensus) and the lack
of opposition to the values and norms on this issue by the
acquirer (lack of response) have undoubtedly contributed to
good creative dynamic between the parties and rapid implementation of the project.
In this case, the relationships among parties in the innovation process have been marked by a collaborative mode of

Achieving radical innovation through symbiotic acquisition
participation where conflicts and oppositions were allowed.
Team members have only rarely used procedures or specific
rules for working on the problem. The process of solving the
problem by Finorex was marked by low formalization. Instead
of putting up scheduled meetings and defining precise specifications, the acquirer’s CEO took the opportunity suggested by Finorex. This spontaneous and informal mode of
participation has facilitated the expression of the views of
both acquirer and acquiree and has provided the necessary
energy for joint innovation and new efficient practices.

15

(c)

MANAGERIAL IMPLICATIONS
Integration policy in the case of symbiotic acquisition is an
alternative integration mode compared to the classical preservation approaches or the rationalization process (harmonization), focusing on managing conflicting demands
(strategic interdependence vs autonomy). It aims to lead
to a change in the economic model of business (internal and
external value chain, relations with stakeholders, organization and management system, management style). It implies
changes in the nature of relationships between acquirer and
acquiree.
Symbiosis acquisition is therefore an original strategic
maneuver that reconciles two rarely associated strategic
options, radical innovation and external growth, with two
complementary strategies: ‘‘strategic intent’’ and ‘‘movement’’. This operation therefore gives a renewed vision of
integration, introducing a new attitude to risk and paying
special attention to the acquired entity in the integration
process. It builds on the ability of organizations to change and
reconfigure the existing resources, to create new something
that does not yet exist on the market.
Our research sheds new light on the phenomena of radical
innovation through acquisition. Several actions can help to
increase the chances of success of this strategy. These actions
build on the results of specialized research, as well as our
experience in management of these growth operations. They
incorporate the key concepts associated with the management of symbiotic acquisitions (majority/minority, values,
norms, cooperation versus hierarchy, nonlinear dynamic process) in a managerial approach.
(a) Valuing differences: To avoid the risk of possible resource destruction, symbiotic acquisition must start
with a preservation policy. This action aims to preserve
the cultural and organizational differences of entities,
particularly those of the acquired entity. The new management must especially be careful to limit the risk of
cultural domination. This vigilance must also involve the
management of symbols (insignia, logos, colors, location). Loss of distinctive symbols can indeed be interpreted by members of the acquiree as questioning their
identity. It can lead to negative reactions because it will
be perceived as an attempt to weaken the power of the
acquired entity.
(b) Open your mind: In this type of approach, it is essential
to develop a mutual understanding between the members of both organizations by investing in the training of
managers and employees. One way to foster this understanding can be (beyond the group meetings) to enhance

(d)

(e)

(f)

(g)

knowledge of business activities by transferring some
key people between the two companies. This approach
can be applied to managers of both entities and certain
operational managers. The goal is to better assess future
possible combinations of resources between organizations. For this, the new management must improve
organizational learning, by facilitating the transfer of
knowledge and the dissemination of best ideas.
Balancing ‘‘cooperation’’ and ‘‘hierarchy’’: Although it
is undeniable that the success of integration depends on
the contributions of the other company, it is necessary to
avoid the status quo. Additionally, a process characterized by the search for acceptable solutions (consensus)
to avoid disagreements may lead to opposite results
from those expected. It is therefore essential that the
new group is based on a single authority system. This
does not mean that the buyer must behave as a conqueror (quite the contrary). It must first ensure consistency and provide a framework for collaboration.
Similarly, members of the acquired entity should be
regarded as an ‘‘influential minority’’.
Mobilize teams on a strategic problem of ‘‘superior’’
interest: Symbiotic acquisition is based on an entrepreneurial movement that should develop initiatives and an
overall commitment to the project. To achieve this, it is
essential that cooperation between the two entities,
beyond the exploitation of operational synergies, is
based on problem-solving skills of general and ‘‘superior’’ interest, to mobilize teams (competitive threat,
economic survival and obsolescence of activities). It is
therefore necessary to put forward a real and legitimate
issue that affects the future of the new entity. Naturally,
these events are not always predictable or desirable.
They illustrate the scope of the problem, where a group
dynamic can develop.
Admit own weaknesses to legitimize the contributions
of the other: In this type of situation, the acquirer must
recognize his limits to complete the project. Indeed, this
is the condition where a true collaboration between the
parties may be possible and lead to strong initiatives
from the acquired entity.
A different conception of time: In traditional Mergers &
Acquisitions, time is linear and crushed. It follows a
specific schedule to optimize and streamline the combined resources. The short term is more important than
the projection in the future. The synergies and transfer
primarily focus on the sharing of operational resources.
In more complex acquisitions, strategic time is not linear
but dynamic, based on experimentation and learning.
Therefore, the integration can take more time and be
fed by approaches and contradictory actions, before
reaching a collective and creative solution.
Emphasize initiatives and emerging actions over
plans: In this type of operation, it is important to leave
room for initiatives, especially in the acquired firm. The
reason for this is to avoid the risk of the acquiring
company dominating the acquired company and preventing it from making any valuable contribution to
the joint project. In this perspective, one way to create
symbiosis is to create initiatives and to move the joint
development outside of existing systems, so that the
exploration be done regardless of operating constraints.

16

CONCLUDING REMARKS
Beyond these principles, it is also necessary to admit that the
integration of symbiosis has a corollary that accepts logics of
errors and even some failures during the implementation
phase. Our studies highlight in particular the importance of

O. Meier, G. Schier
identity elements and the free play of the acquiree for the
success of the operation. Similarly, this strategy enquires into
the degree of intentionality that governs the operations of
symbiosis and the balance between planning and emerging
actions. Finally, it raises the question of cultural and organizational learning.

Achieving radical innovation through symbiotic acquisition

17

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Olivier Meier (PhD in strategic Management, Research Supervisor — HDR) is an Associate Professor and Research
Director at the University Paris Est (UPEC). He studies Mergers & Acquisitions and radical innovation in relation to
the strategic management field in multi-national companies. His research focuses on international management
and interorganizational relationships. Prior to his PhD, Meier worked 5 years in strategy consulting and was head of
the Research Center (Institut de Recherche en Gestion, Université Paris-Est (UPEC), Site de senart — 36/37 rue
Georges Charpak, 77567 Lieusaint, France. Tel.: +33-1-6413-4481; e-mail: olmeier@yahoo.fr).

Guillaume Schier (PhD in Financial Economics, Research Supervisor — HDR) is a Finance Professor at ESSCA, School
of Management. He wrote several articles and books in the field of Corporate Finance, Mergers & Acquisitions and
Family Business. Prior to his PhD, Guillaume Schier worked for 10 years as consultant in Paris for major
international firms and governmental institutions (ESSCA School of Management, 1 rue Joseph Lakanal,
49000 Angers, France. Tel.: +33-2-4771-7290; e-mail: guillaume.schier@essca.fr).