French defense firm Thales plants innovation group in Cambridge

A surgeon at the NeuroTexas Institute wears the new Dragonfly "augmented reality" display from Thales USA, based on a system originally developed for military pilots.
A surgeon at the NeuroTexas Institute wears the new Dragonfly "augmented reality" display from Thales USA, based on a system originally developed for military pilots.

One more major multinational has set up shop in Kendall Square, seeking fruitful collaboration with the surrounding startup and academic communities. This time, it’s Paris-based Thales Group, an aerospace, defense, and security firm with 65,000 employees stationed across 56 countries.

Thales opened an office inside the Cambridge Innovation Center back in January, and so far, it has just five employees. But the office is home to a new initiative called Thales xPlor that is being announced today at the MIT Media Lab. Thales is also signing on as a Media Lab sponsor.

Alan Pellegrini, CEO of Thales USA, says that the new xPlor program will search for partnerships and ideas that can help grow Thales’s businesses, which range from making rugged military trucks to in-flight entertainment systems to signaling technology for the London Underground. He terms xPlor “a catalyst for connecting our initiatives at Thales to all of the exciting entrepreneurial ideas flowing from research institutions and small business startups in the U.S., which is a hotbed for such activity.”

Pete Roney, managing director of xPlor, says that the Cambridge office will likely stay small, but it will host Thales technology executives from around the world, called “xPlorers-in-residence,” who will stay for a year or two. The xPlor team will identify promising ideas, “prototype quickly with customers, and develop new solutions that can turn into businesses in a short amount of time,” Roney says. “Oftentimes, the development cycle can be in the years or decades for a defense and aerospace company.”

thales-scorpionAs an early example, he mentions the Dragonfly heads-up or “augmented reality” display, which can place crucial information into an individual’s point of view. (Some of the technology comes from a system used by fighter pilots called the Scorpion, pictured at right.) Thales conducted tests of the Dragonfly with neurosurgeons in Texas earlier this year, and the company thinks that the display could also prove useful to workers on assembly lines and in warehouses. Trying to bring an expensive military technology into other industries “is forcing us to come down the curve relatively quickly,” Roney says.

Employees working in the xPlor office will be permitted to serve on advisory boards of startups, Roney says. They will also have the authority to make investments, enter into licensing deals and joint ventures, and identify acquisition targets.

Roney also says that the company hopes that xPlor will be a “brand enhancer” for the company in the U.S. “The Thales brand is very well known in Europe,” he says, “but when you ask people here if they’ve heard of Thales, we’ll be lucky to have one or two hands go up — and they’ll pronounce it wrong.”

The proper way? Ta-les, pronounced so it rhymes with Dallas.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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