Upstream Online Franc powering up the hydrogen economy

FiveT Hydrogen chief sees societal change as key driver for energy transition success

FiveT Hydrogen chief executive Pierre-Etienne Franc admits he was not always “tuned into companies and business”, yet he has played a key role in building the emerging clean hydrogen economy.

Coming from a “classical French family” with a father involved in public law and a mother who was a professor in medicine, Franc says he enrolled in the HEC Paris business school in the late 1980s “almost by default”.

“I wasn't too keen to do this. I was rather willing to move into literature, politics or things like that,” he explains.

However, his decision to join the prestigious school in the south-western suburbs of Paris saw him become “a business guy” and would eventually set him on a path towards becoming an influential figure in the hydrogen industry.

Air Liquide

Franc joined Air Liquide in 1995 and held several positions where, over the next two decades, he was involved in “extending the boundaries” of the French multinational, helping the group move into the Russian and Chinese steelmaking industries and creating Air Liquide's venture capital arm, Aliad.

However, his journey into hydrogen really began in 2010, when he took on the role of vice president for future technologies at Air Liquide.

Franc says the new role saw him “bounce back to his origins”, viewing the energy transition as a common good that needs to be driven not only by business but by societal change.

“It had a strong attraction to me because of my family background. I found a way back to connect the dots with my roots, which is to serve something and to work for a purpose and not only for making money,” he says.

Hydrogen calling

He admits that over the next 10 years he became more of “a hydrogen guy than an energy guy” and eventually ended his more than 25-year tenure at Air Liquide when the call came to help establish FiveT Hydrogen.

“It was just a coincidence, but it came at exactly the right moment where I was basically ready to move,” he recalls.

FiveT has since formed a 50:50 joint venture with private investment house Ardian to create Hy24, the world’s largest clean hydrogen infrastructure fund, of which Franc is also chief executive.

Franc says the decision to leave Air Liquide was risky, and still is, despite the successful launch of Hy24, which is well on its way to building an initial €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) fund.

The hydrogen infrastructure fund is “up and running, but we need to make it work, obviously. This is the challenge of the next 10 years,” he says.

“But it's very exciting, and I'm basically doing now exactly what I'm good at, starting things, gathering people, creating the dynamic, and moving the ball to the next step. And this is where I succeed.”….