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Odysseus Space: French entrepreneurs making the most of Tainan’s resources

By Carrie Davis

International Perspectives on Taiwan

Published on Crossroads on 2018/12/28 7983 views

This post is available in other languages 中文

Odysseus Space: French entrepreneurs making the most of Tainan’s resources

Jordan Vannitsen 

CEO & Co-founder

Nationality: French

Visa: Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa

Number of years in Taiwan: 8

Education: Ph.D. in Astrophysics, National Cheng Kung University; Master of Science in Astronautics,NationalCheng Kung University; Engineering degree in Aerospace, IPSA, école d'ingénieurs de l'air et de l'espace

Previous overseas experience: two years in the Netherlands at European Space Agency

Hobbies: Abroad travels, motorcycling    Favorite Taiwanese food: Chou tofou

Julien Hennequin

COO & Co-founder

Nationality: French

Visa: Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa

Education: Master in Aeronautics, IPSA and Shenyang Aerospace University

Previous overseas experience: five years in the Netherlands, one year in mainland China                               

Odysseus Space: French entrepreneurs making the most of Tainan’s resources

You can explore a lot of opportunities in Taiwan, a tech hub with comparatively low operating costs and convenient access to huge Asian markets. Taiwan's government is encouraging foreign entrepreneurs to launch businesses here and contribute to Taiwan's growth and diversification. New incentives, like the entrepreneur visa, are being initiated to make foreign entrepreneurs’ lives easier. 

However, many foreign entrepreneurs in Taiwan struggle with language barriers, complex and archaic bureaucratic procedures, and ill-prepared administrative services. These are among the many setbacks that Jordan Vannitsen, Julien Hennequin, and Marco Agnan have dealt with since they launched their space technology development company Odysseus Space in Tainan in 2016.

All three founders are originally from France and have 20 years of combined experience in space agencies, research institutions and nanosatellite industries in Europe and Asia. They launched Odysseus in Tainan, where they partner with National Cheng Kung University and benefit from resources like access to NCKU's latest research, development facilities, and expertise in small satellites.

As pioneers in not one, but two fields - Taiwan's new entrepreneurial strategy and its emerging space exploration industry - Odysseus’ founders encountered numerous obstacles. These included inconvenient access to administrative services, restrictive insurance and regulatory policies, and gaps in administrative services. They often found themselves dealing with staff and administrators who had never worked with foreigners before and were not aware of the related policies and regulations, often resulting in costly delays.

However, in the two years since they first launched, Odysseus's founders have seen positive changes, and an increasing number of their industry peers are reporting a smoother process, as well.

In this interview, learn from Odysseus founders Jordan and Julien as they share why they chose Tainan as home base for their business, how they dealt with challenges they encountered on the way, how things are going two years down the road, observations on Taiwan’s business environment, and ideas on how Taiwan can improve. 

Taiwan’s space industry is developing and opportunities are increasing, but government policy sometimes gets in the way

Taiwan had no industry dedicated to space until recently. We started here, and now we are not the only one - there are other startups here doing different things in the space industry. One company is doing rockets, another is doing a specific type of satellite. The industry is growing. Also, the new 15-year phase of Taiwan's space program will be starting next year. But we are seeing problems. To us it seems like the roadmap is changing every six months. The government doesn’t really have a clear line. They say they want to promote the space industry, but they aren't acknowledging the difficulty of actually putting this into action. Taiwan’s space agency must answer to too many other offices. They basically can only execute decisions from above - their decisional impact is limited. For most projects, they have to provide their own money or raise funds by working with public institutions, like universities or laboratories. That's not bad, but it's not efficient. If you want to promote the space industry, you need to open more resources to the industry. Nevertheless we are very happy to see good sign of progresses and we hope that the local space agency will be given the right tools to execute fully their ambitious roadmap.

Government needs to collaborate with businesses more to promote industry growth and development

Taiwan’s space program is definitely not business-oriented. In European and North American space programs, R&D programs are used to create the technologies that will then be passed on to the industry. Intellectual property created in these programs is passed on almost for free to participating companies. There is a partnership between the industry and the space agency to develop something new, which the company can then commercialize, ultimately contributing to the advancement of the country’s space program. It seems that Taiwan’s space agency wants to make everything by itself rather than collaborating with industry. This is not effective, because Taiwan is a small country. Taiwan’s IP transfer policy does not encourage collaboration and growth - companies need to give a percentage of the profits to the space agency. This makes Taiwan’s space products more expensive and less competitive, especially because Taiwan is not famous for space products. This may change in the future though so it is a good thing.

We think Taiwan’s public entities are too far removed from the industry and don't really understand how the market works. They are getting money and using it to make products, but they are not working with the industry to create products that are competitive and marketable at world level.

How can Taiwan advance industry development? Learn from other countries and encourage contribution from foreign entrepreneurs

NASA open-sourced their patents and are very collaborative within the industry. They have a lot of partnerships within the industry. They are supportive, but don't get too involved. They tell you to do what you want, and if they like it they will provide some money and support. Here, in Taiwan, rather than being supported by the space agency, we feel we are constantly fighting it.

We have five years of experience in the space industry in Europe and we think we can contribute something new and different to the industry. They ask us for a lot of information, but they don't ask us for advice or ideas about better ways to do things. 

It’s important to employ local Taiwanese, but there are complications to consider:

We plan to hire three Taiwanese and one foreigner. We hope to hire more locals, but in this industry it is hard to find people with the skills we need who are willing to work for a startup salary. We can't compete with other local industries like the semiconductor industry. Most of the skilled people and people who've graduated from the space exploration program have gone to the semiconductor industry. We’ve met many Taiwanese who are passionate about space, but we need to find people who are also skilled, trained, able to communicate in an English-dominated industry, and willing to accept a startup salary.

“Faster, better, cheaper” Taiwan’s excellent technology resources, easy access to Asian markets, and lower costs give it competitive potential

Taiwan’s space industry is showing growth - this is a good time and a good place for us. Also, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry means Taiwan has good facilities, resources, and skilled people. Taiwan’s new space philosophy is better, faster, cheaper access to space. This is exactly what Taiwan did in the semiconductor industry a few years ago, and we see potential for Taiwan to do the same thing in the satellite industry. Also, in Taiwan you have easy access to Japan, Korea, and a variety of Asian markets. We are targeting southeast asian markets. Taiwan is not the cheapest place for R&D,  but it's not as expensive as Europe, and its access to big Asian markets makes it worth it.

Switching from different work and student visas to the entrepreneur visa

The entrepreneur visa is a recent development for us. We only switched last summer. Before, Julien was on a working visa because he was the manager of the company, and Jordan was on a student visa. The third French co-founder, Marco, had another working visa - the engineer visa. The three of us all switched in July to the entrepreneur visa. That was through Taiwan Startup Stadium (TSS). We satisfied two requirements. One was our company being part of TSS and another one was expenses of the last year. Meeting one of those two requirements was enough.

The entrepreneur visa is a great development, but it’s new and unfamiliar - expect delays

The application process for the entrepreneur visa isn't bad - the problem is the information discrepancies. Information on the website may be out-of-date or inaccurate, and staff responsible for handling applications do not necessarily know what qualifications are required and what is optional. For example, in some cases, a letter of intent is required from the entrepreneurs applying for the visa. According to the website, this letter is only required if you have not established the company yet. But at that time, we had already had the company for two years and were already Taiwanese residents. The website specifically states that if the company has already been created, the letter of intent is optional. We went to Kaohsiung (which is a necessary step to do official business, because there are no offices that can do it in Tainan), and we brought everything except for this letter of intent, but the office rejected their request, saying, "no, you have to come back and bring us this letter." We pointed out that their own website stated the letter was not required if the company is already created, but the office was adamant that we had to get the letter and come back later. So of course, we went away and came back with the letter later.

In another example, the visa application website had no checkbox for "entrepreneur visa,” so we couldn’t choose this when we were filling out the form. We know some people in the legal department, so we contacted them directly and told them the problem, and the website has since been updated. But at the time that we applied, we had to check a different box.

You encounter a lot of these little problems. The big job is done - the visa entrepreneur is available, and after we got through the little problems, we got our entrepreneur visas within two or three weeks, and everything was fine. But these little problems are not fine.

Expect discrepancies between official policies and service offices, and be patient in dealing with them

I think we were the first entrepreneur visa the person at the immigration office had handled. She had to ask three other people in the office what this visa was and how it worked. I think it just takes a bit of time for the information about policy changes to reach the people on the delivering end, especially in the south. This would happen in any country. It takes a while for new changes to pass down.

Application process:


Tainan is a good place to live, but there are drawbacks

Jordan: My first time in Tainan was 11 years ago, and I've spent 8 years there. At first I loved Tainan the most - it’s easygoing and has good quality of life. But now I've started to change my mind. I think Tainan has not changed. This is both good and bad. It's good for some things, but then you have things like the sidewalks - in Tainan, you can't walk on the sidewalks because there are too many things blocking your way, so you have to walk on the street. That seems like an insignificant detail, but if you are running a shop, it can influence your business. People walking on the street will walk right past you. This is one of the things I think will not change.

The business benefits from local partnerships in Tainan, but service is lacking, and administrative processes are inefficient

Jordan: Business-wise, we are in Tainan because we work with NCKU. That's the reason why we're there - because we can work with the faculty and facilities of NCKU. But we can see that there is a big gap - not only between Taipei and Tainan, but the south in general. We have to come to Taipei every two weeks for business meetings and administration. Even though Tainan has more than 2 million people and Kaohsiung is even bigger, there are some documents and services we can only get in Taipei. Sometimes we have to work with the government on some projects, and we must come to Taipei to get a stamp. Of course it's not one stamp - you have to stamp 76 pages four times. This kind of thing is ineffective.

Tainan is trying to become more business-friendly - is it working?

Tainan is trying to change. They created a big incubator in Tainan, far from the city center, and we were invited to an event to promote the new incubator and try to attract not only Taiwanese companies but also international companies. But the person responsible for international relations in Tainan does not speak English. That's really a problem - we had people from Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, all over southeast asia, trying to have this event at the incubator, and the people responsible for it could not speak English. This does not give a good impression to international entrepreneurs - they won't come here because they are not going to get help. We were a bit special because we already had a Taiwanese company in Tainan, and we were discussing with city hall how they could help, and they had no incentives whatsoever, no perks nothing - they just had this empty building that they imagined would fill up on its own. So how can Tainan compete with Taipei, where they have all these nice programs? I think the people in the city hall government are a bit disconnected - they created a nice-looking building - and they think that’s enough. But it’s all on the surface - there's no action to attract companies. We were a bit disappointed in this. The Tainan SBIR [Small Business Innovation and Research program] hasn't been helpful to our progress.

“Sorry, foreigners are not eligible” - dealing with bureaucratic confusion

We went to the SBIR office in Tainan and said we wanted to apply for a program with our project. They told us it was a nice project and it would be eligible for the program, but that as foreigners, we were not eligible to apply. We told them the company is fully Taiwanese - it's registered in Tainan. We brought them all the papers to prove that the company was Taiwanese and was therefore eligible, and they still told us we could not apply. Then, two weeks later, they called us and said, "Actually, you can apply! But the deadline was one week ago, so you can do it next year." They are just not used to dealing with foreigners. They have never been in this situation.

“They are just not used to dealing with foreigners. They have never been in this situation.”

When administrators lack experience with foreigners, communication is key

We went to SBIR’s office and had a one-hour meeting with the people directly responsible for this. In Tainan, these basic things have never been done before - we are pioneers. But at the national level, we are also pioneers in some less basic procedures where we've encountered the same problems. We may not be the first to do these things, but there are so few people doing them that the people we interact with are likely dealing with this type of case for the first time, and they don't know what to do.

The mayor of Tainan is pushing to make Tainan a bilingual city. Has there been any impact?

Julien: Obviously, everyone's not going to learn English in three years. It's going to take time. But I haven't really seen much change - maybe some touristy places have become more English-friendly, but other than that, no.
Jordan: We are in Taiwan, and it’s not an English country, so I think it's ok for people not to speak English. But if the government says it wants to attract foreigners to come and do business, that’s different. If you really want to attract foreigners, you must have at least one person who speaks English in the administrative offices that foreigners will deal with when they are starting a business. If you don’t provide English service, don't bother saying you want to attract foreigners.

Language is only one obstacle - foreigners face other obstacles, like purchasing insurance

Foreigners are subject to special rules that make it more difficult for them to launch a company. For example, we’ve had problems with the rules for labor insurance. For the SBIR program, it's mandatory to have labor insurance. That's what they told us, anyway. We went to the labor insurance company and they told us, no, you're foreigners, you can't have labor insurance - as foreigners, the only kind of insurance we can apply for is national labor insurance. National labor insurance is more expensive - about 8 or 9% of the salary. We needed this to satisfy the requirement for the project funding requirement, so we applied, but we got rejected. Apparently, because we are all directors of the company, we are not eligible. So we are not eligible for the national insurance, and we are not eligible for private insurance - but SBIR told us we must have insurance to qualify for the program. We’re stuck, and nobody could tell us the solution. Finally, about two months after we started this process, somebody in SBIR called and told us, as a small company with fewer than five employees, we do not need this insurance.

Policy conflicts that foreign entrepreneurs need to know about, and that Taiwan needs to address

As a small company with fewer than five people, we require unemployment insurance but not labor insurance. But we cannot apply for unemployment insurance because we are foreigners. That's the kind of thing that Taiwan needs to change if it wants to be attractive to foreign entrepreneurs - why should foreigners pay more for insurance? That's not very attractive. Also,  there is no retirement or unemployment system for foreigners. You have these rules with obvious gaps that create a lot of problems. They told us the problem was solved because we have less than five employees, but the problem is not solved - what will happen if we hire two more employees? The problem is just swept under the carpet instead of being solved.

Although there are challenges, things are improving

In spite of this, things are developing in the right direction. We see a lot of progress. We started our company in April 2016, and industry peers who started companies more recently are having an easier time than we did. The entrepreneur visa is a good thing. TSS is also helping the startups and the foreigners is a good thing. If there were no good things, we would not be here. But it doesn't help to only talk about the good things - we need to improve the bad things, as well. 

The easiest obstacle to overcome: better English-language service in public offices that handle foreign entrepreneurs

The government says it wants to attract foreigners to start businesses. To accomplish this, it needs the ability to communicate with the foreign entrepreneurs it attracts. There are too many government offices where no staff speak English. This is a serious obstacle. The government offices that foreigners must pass through to start a business need to have at least one staff member who can speak English.

Learning Chinese: it’s not as essential as you think, especially in an English-dominated industry, but you will learn some anyway

Julien: I was in China before, so I understood Chinese already. We don’t work in Chinese and I haven't practiced my Chinese in eight years, so I've gone back to basic conversation level. I couldn't conduct work communications in Chinese. But you’ll learn Chinese anyway just by talking to people. In Tainan, nobody speaks English. If you study a bit and then go out and talk to people, you can learn Chinese within six months. But to talk about technical or administrative topics, that's another level of Chinese entirely.

Being a “laowai” can be frustrating - just take it in stride

Jordan: I don't feel offended when people call me "laowai" - what offends me is not being taken seriously by Taiwanese. For example, when I buy something at a shop and the shopkeeper hands the change to my Taiwanese friend instead of me, or when I go to a ministry with paperwork for my company and the staff assume I’m an English teacher even though there is no reason why an English teacher would have anything to do with this office. There are also the awkward situations, like when people publicly announce “there’s a foreigner here”, or when you go to an office and the staff raise the "foreigner alert".

You’ll make lots of Taiwanese friends, but there’s usually still some distance

Taiwanese are very friendly and open - they're happy to invite you to dinner or a drink. But when it comes to deepening a friendship and entering Taiwanese friends' inner circles, you may encounter barriers.

If you end up dating a local, you can share different experiences and worldviews and deepen your relationship with Taiwan - but be aware of stigmas and stereotypes

Jordan: Many foreigners come to Taiwan and stay because they are dating someone. For us, we had already decided to stay before we started dating anyone.

Julien: Originally, I came here to work.I’m dating a Taiwanese girl now. There are cultural barriers when dating Taiwanese, but that happens even between different European countries. Cross-cultural dating is more interesting - it's different from dating someone from your own country. You get different perspectives, different challenges. It's sometimes not easy for Taiwanese girls dating foreign men. There are some negative stereotypes.

Jordan: many families here are more conservative. They are a bit scared when their family member is dating a foreigner.

Showing off Taiwan to your friends and family - night markets, stinky tofu, and the world’s best convenience stores

Jordan’s family has come to Taiwan six or seven times already, and they want to move here. They love the food and the convenience, they love how nice and friendly the people are. You can find good, cheap food anywhere at any time of the day or night. We've had many friends come visit us, as well. They all like Taiwan. Jordan recommends people try stinky tofu, as well as night markets for the variety. Julien likes taking friends to experience hot pot.

As a foreigner, you will never be seen as Taiwanese

Even if we get a Taiwanese passport, we will never be seen as Taiwanese. Our company is a Taiwanese company, but nobody sees us a Taiwanese company - everybody sees us as a foreign company because the owners are foreigners. Getting a Taiwanese ID gives you access to more services, but it won’t help you if you run into problems.

Taiwan’s politics are complex and culturally nuanced, and foreigners have no political power, but giving foreigners a voice could be helpful to both sides

We try to keep informed on Taiwanese politics, but it's complicated and it's difficult to keep track. The thing with Taiwanese politics is, even if we understand the politics, there are many aspects that go deeper than that - these are issues of Chinese identity. We can never have anything to do with that. I don't think foreigners should have the right to vote. Even if you give political power to foreigners, we are such a minority it wouldn't make any difference - we have no political power here. Maybe what could help foreigners have a stronger voice in Taiwan is to create a small entity within the government focusing on foreigners in Taiwan that can communicate with people and inform them on foreigners' issues.

Foreigners collaborating with Taiwan’s ministries can bring positive change without political interference

There was someone from the French ministry of foreign affairs who was working in the Taiwan ministry of science and technology. He served the French government, but was also collaborating with Taiwan. He was a foreigner, but he was in the Taiwan ministry’s office every day, so he could give them advice. In two years, he changed a lot of things. That is a good idea - to have some person giving ideas. They don't necessarily need to have any power, but they can provide ideas, propositions, and feedback and help influence decisions. The European Chamber of Commerce Taiwan is doing this every year. They have a book for every important issue and they propose things to Taiwan’s government, which then publishes its response. This shows what they are working on, but it would be better to have someone inside the government. Perhaps foreigners could also vote for the contact window in the Taiwanese offices responsible for handing foreigners to ensure efficient service in English and Chinese. 

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