By Mathieu Rosemain
PARIS (Reuters) - When Rob Spiro left San Francisco to settle in France with his wife and kid in 2016, the family chose a mid-sized city on France's west coast over Paris' burgeoning start-up scene.
At 32, the Yale-educated entrepreneur and former Google product manager had already co-founded two start-ups, including one sold to Google for $50 million (£37.4 million) in 2010.
In Nantes, France's sixth largest city, known for its mediaeval castle and whimsical mechanical creatures, he sees the potential for a smaller version of America's Silicon Valley, home to tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google.
Quality of life, not money, is the key, he says.
"What everybody in Nantes sees and experiences is that there are thousands of people who move here from Paris," he said at his start-up accelerator, Imagination Machine.
"They're looking for a better quality of life, but they want to remain in a city that is active and dynamic."
His "incubator", financially backed by the region's biggest companies, opened its doors in June to support the launch of selected start-ups with seed funding and mentoring.
Nantes itself is part of the promotional picture. The city was ranked second after Bordeaux among cities where Parisian executives would wish to move, according to an August poll for recruiting website Cadremploi.fr.
"Here's the strategy to become the next Silicon Valley: become a place where people, especially young people, want to live," Spiro said.
With venture capital investments reaching new records in Europe, the competition to lure new tech companies goes beyond the three usual metropolises – London, Paris, Berlin – and now includes smaller cities that bet on their own mix of schools, research centres, investors and culture to lure hotshots.
Venture capital firms invested 8.7 billion euros ($10.3 billion) in European tech companies in the first half of 2017, up 21 percent from the year before, according to Dealroom. Such investments jumped 18 percent to 1.3 billion over the same period in France, putting it third after Britain and Germany.
The trend is now gaining further momentum, driven by high expectations for business-friendly policies under new President Emmanuel Macron and the uncertainties caused by the British vote to leave the European Union.
Nantes-based iAdvize has benefited from the boom. The company, which offers a marketing platform connecting customers to experts, closed a 32-million-euro fundraising in October.
It is one of the prime examples of Nantes' success in the tech field, along with Akeneo, which makes software for retailers, and Lengow, which does the same for e-commerce sites.
French venture capital fund Alven has shares in all three.
Part of Spiro's plan for boosting Nantes' profile is inviting former U.S. colleagues to come and check it out. Julian Nachtigal, who worked as head of Spiro's second start-up, signed up for the "French tech visa" available since January.
"I never imagined it would be so easy to get a four-year residential visa to the EU," Nachtigal said, comparing Europe favourably to the U.S. approach under President Donald Trump.
"There's a growing trend of people leaving Silicon Valley to live elsewhere," he added, citing the high cost of living.
Within France, too, a similar trend can be seen. Gregoire Monconduit, co-founder of Atelier Rosemood, an online maker of personalised birth announcements and wedding invitations, chose to move to Nantes years ago from Paris.
"We hesitated between three cities: Lyon, Aix and Nantes," he said. "We thought we'd be out of Paris for three years, it's been six years already and it's the best decision we made."
A long road lies ahead, however, if Nantes is to catch up with Paris, where a 34,000-square-metre megacampus for start-ups, called Station F, opened in June.
The Parisian region drew three quarters of all venture capital investments in the first half of this year, according to accounting firm EY. The region that includes Nantes got less than 3 percent of the total.
(Editing by Luke Baker and Gareth Jones)