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.
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.
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.”
Bringing people together
Another common theme over Franc’s career is his involvement in the creation of partnerships and alliances.
This includes the Hydrogen Council, the chief executive-led initiative he helped co-found in 2017 with 13 inaugural members, including Air Liquide. The organisation now includes more than 130 members.
Franc explains Elon Musk was one of the key drivers behind the formation of the Hydrogen Council, with the South African-born entrepreneur and the looming “battery wave” he was championing triggering trepidation among the ranks of the hydrogen industry.
In initial discussions with fellow Hydrogen Council founders such as Shell, Daimler, Linde, Toyota, Hyundai and Anglo American, Franc highlighted the need to bring together the chief executives of large hydrogen players and explain how hydrogen has a far larger role beyond just mobility.
This includes its advantages for use in heavy transport, as well as helping decarbonise industrial processes.
However, Franc does not believe the debate over battery versus hydrogen when it comes to mobility is settled just yet.
“Still, some people dream that batteries will take it all. I think they're completely wrong,” he says.
“I think that over 20 years hydrogen will probably take much more in the transport segment. For now, we need to focus hydrogen where it has an indisputable advantage, which is heavy duty and intensive mobility captive fleets, and helping transport large renewable potentials in demanding countries.”
However, for hydrogen to stake its claim, Franc warns that original equipment manufacturers need to move faster, the correct infrastructure needs to be put in place more quickly and the industry needs government support.
“The problem is that people cannot wait, and we need to move now so that hydrogen does not stand against batteries, but next to batteries — and that the inevitable advantage of hydrogen in terms of economic fast charging, compulsive use, et cetera, are shown next to the more classical use of battery cars for short distance urban travels,” he explains.
“Hydrogen still has this magic touch of being the ultimate molecule. The problem is that we need it now because of the transition," he says. "We cannot wait for the next generation or the next century. Urgency calls for the ultimate energy vector to step in now.”