Tag Archives: EPFL

We must create a Google in Europe

The self-citation is a delicate exercise but as it does not happen often that I give my point of view in the media, I guess this is acceptable… Newspaper Le Temps asked for my point of view related to the recent acquisitions of EPFL spin-offs. I extract some messages.


What worries me is that in Europe, I have never seen the birth of technology companies like Google, Apple or Cisco.

– Yet there is SAP in Germany or Internet service Skype…

– Yes, but [forgetting SAP] there was no big success in Europe in technology in the last fifty years. Microsoft has bought Skype for $8.5 billion and Logitech is worth $2B on the stock market with 6,000 employees. But in the United States, industry heavyweights are valued at over $170 billion and have more than 50,000 employees. There is a difference of a factor ten between the two continents and this has been disturbing me for over twenty-five years. I have doubts and fears about the future of Europe.

– How do you explain this difference?

– I think this is essentially cultural. A young engineer who listens to her parents will work with Nestlé and Novartis, and then remains there. Americans have parents or grandparents who were immigrants. The tradition of moving is digested and failure is accepted.

– What are the risks of such a situation?

– If it does not renew, it is the death of Europe. We are almost there, look at France. This is a concern I have for my two children. We must create a Google in Europe for the economy to evolve. Without the presence of a major technology group, innovative start-ups will be systematically acquired by American groups. Yahoo! bought French start-up Kelkoo, Danish Navision now belongs to Microsoft, the Swedish MySQL to Oracle and French ILOG to IBM.

For the spin-offs of EPFL, it is the same. Medical imaging company Aïmago was acquired by Novadaq Technologies for $10 million. Sensima Technology, active in the production of magnetic sensors, has been integrated in Monolithic Power Systems (MPS) based in San Jose, California. Only Jilion was bought by the French Dailymotion, which integrated their video technology on their site. And now it’s Intel. And when these companies are acquired, it’s expertise and jobs that may disappear. There is a risk of loss of wealth.

The rest of the article is available on Le Temps website.

Stanford University, where Optimism Meets Empathy

People who know me well might be tired of my enthusiasm about Stanford University. My kids laugh at me, even some former professors do! Still, often, when I hear something about Stanford, it reminds me of the good old days. Not only. Stanford mostly looks at the future! I was reading yesterday night the Stanford Magazine and was attracted by two articles, which illustrate my nostalgia (and by the way, EPFL has some similar features today…):

– Stanford and Silicon Valley are not known for their interest in art. However, the university will open a new Art Gallery (close to the Rodin sculptures) on its campus, showing a major private modern art collection from the Anderson family. More in The Collection of a Lifetime

The New Anderson Collection building at Stanford University

– The President column also said very true things, such as “I’m often asked what sets Stanford apart. The university’s entrepreneurial spirit is certainly a distinguishing characteristic. But there is another vital component: the desire to make the world better for others.” Again one may laugh at this, but I really invite you to read “Optimism Meets Empathy” by John Hennessy.

John Hennessy
John Hennessy

The cradle of European Innovation

Sometimes, giving an interview has interesting and strange results. I do not read Korean so I cannot really help! But apparently what was kept from the conversation is that “it is important to make a culture where we are not afraid to fail”. As well as ” Culture is important to propagate entrepreneurship in universities. Even if the (academic) system is very good, it might be far from starting a business without this culture.” I had learnt my name is Russian was Эрве Лебре. Now I know it in Korean: 에레 레브레. And what about my new look according to a Korean photographer… Here is the full article.

◆ 창조경제의 요람 유럽대학 ① ◆

기사의 0번째 이미지
“대학에 기업가정신을 퍼뜨리기 위해서는 문화가 중요합니다. 제도가 아무리 좋아도 문화가 뒤따르지 않으면 창업은 요원한 일입니다.”

스위스 로잔공대 이노베이션파크에서 만난 이노그랜트 프로그램 총괄 책임자 에레 레브레 박사는 “유럽의 대학생들도 한국과 마찬가지로 기업가정신이 부족한 편”이라며 “미국 실리콘밸리처럼 기업가정신이 대학 곳곳으로 퍼질 수 있는 문화를 만들어야 한다”고 강조했다.

이노그랜트는 창업을 원하는 교수나 학생에게 조건 없이 창업자금을 지원하는 프로그램이다. 2005년 스위스의 한 은행이 학교를 위해 내놓은 100만달러를 종잣돈으로 삼아 만들어졌다. 레브레 박사는 “로잔공대에는 기술사업화와 창업을 지원하는 다양한 프로그램이 있었지만 `스타트업`을 중점적으로 돕는 프로그램이 필요하다고 판단했다”며 “이노그랜트 프로그램을 만든 뒤 지난 7년간 56개 아이디어에 자금을 지원했고, 이를 통해 25개 새로운 회사가 탄생했다”고 밝혔다.

이노그랜트 펀딩의 대상자가 되면 교수와 학생을 구분하지 않고 1년간 창업에만 열중할 수 있다.
창업에 실패한다고 하더라도 받은 돈을 학교에 반납할 필요가 없다. 레브레 박사는 “이노그랜트의 펀딩을 받으면 연구나 수업에서 제외된다”며 “1년간 생활자금을 지원해 주기 때문에 돈 걱정 없이 창업 준비에만 신경을 쓰게 된다”고 했다.

이 같은 혜택에 힘입어 이노그랜트 프로그램에 창업을 하겠다며 지원하는 프로젝트는 연간 40~50건에 달한다.

[로잔(스위스) = 원호섭 기자]
[ⓒ 매일경제 & mk.co.kr, 무단전재 및 재배포 금지]


After posting this article, I received an English translation from the author. here it is:

Create a culture that is not afraid to fail
(This article is a part of the special series of articles titled “Visit European universities, Cradle of the creative economy”)

The EPFL is a unique place of innovation and competence. The EPFL handles innovation through its VPIV. The VPIV is responsible for the technology transfer, supporting start-ups through the Innogrants program and the coordination of all relationships between industry and EPFL. The EPFL turned out 156 new companies between 2000 and 2012. Hervé Lebret, the manager of the Innogrants said “Even if there was a best system, startups are still far-off without culture. It’s about culture. Just like Silicon Valley, we have to make a culture which can spread the entrepreneurship throughout the university.” The Innogrants were created by the EPFL in 2005 to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit and support start-ups. To date, 56 ideas were funded which enabled the creation of 25 start-ups. An Innogrant is a 12-month salary for the project owner in an EPFL laboratory and the beneficiary is freed of teaching or research activities so that the project owner fully concentrates on that project.

The Black Swan and Start-ups

I am not sure how many posts I wrote on Taleb’s Black Swan. Whatever, I was asked by EPFL to add a contribution to its relationship with start-ups. This is my eighth contribution on start-ups to the EPFL web site. Here it is:

08.05.13 – What do natural disasters and unusually successful high-tech businesses have in common? They are both statistical outliers, and they both have outsized impact. This is the concept of the “Black Swan.”


The concept of Black Swan was created by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his works on risk and randomness and popularized by a best-seller published in 2007 and sold over 3 million copies! Taleb explains the concept of Black Swan as follows: “There are two very distinct classes of statistics. The first defines the Mediocristan, the second defines the Extremistan. Without going into much detail, the Mediocristan exceptions occur, but don’t carry large consequences. Add the heaviest person on the planet to a sample of 1000. The total weight would barely change. In Extremistan, exceptions can be everything (they will eventually, in time, represent everything). Add Bill Gates to your sample: the total wealth may increase by a factor of 10,000. The first kind is of “Gaussian-Poisson” nature with thin tails, the second kind is of “fractal” or Mandelbrotian nature, with fat tails. But note here an epistemological question: there is a category of “I don’t know” that I also bundle in Extremistan – simply because I don’t know much about the probabilistic structure or the role of large events.” The Black Swans are unknown events, in Extremistan. These events are rare, very rare, unpredictable and have a huge impact. Ironically, we tend to rationalize them afterwards. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the events of September 11th, the Fukushima accident are examples of Black Swans.

The world of high-tech entrepreneurship is particularly well described with the concepts of Taleb. We have hundreds of start-ups in Switzerland. Thousands of start-ups are founded each year around the world. But a small number grows and survives. An even smaller number will become a great success. Logitech, Swissquote, Actelion in Switzerland. But if it were only about that kind of success, using the concept of Black Swan here would be misleading. Google and Apple are two real Black Swans. The extent of the success of these two former start-ups was simply unpredictable. Many authors have tried to rationalize the success after the fact, but failed, I think. Apple market capitalization is about twice as large as any other company. Steve Jobs, an unlikely entrepreneur, founded it in 1976 at the age of 21 and even more incredibly, he saved it from disaster with his comeback in 1997. Read the new book “I’m Feeling Lucky” on Google’s first steps and you will understand the extraordinary exceptionality of its two founders, Sergei Brin and Larry Page. Google is less than 15 years old, counts more than 50,000 employees and has nearly $40B in revenue.

Taleb is very controversial and provocative. He denounces the excesses of the statistical discipline, which sometimes makes us believe in the elimination of risks. He hates the “wisdom” of scholars to the point of attacking them personally. I remember a conference where the president of the session “blamed” my great passion for high-tech start-ups which according to him is only a fraction of firms. I did not try to hide my bias, but simply pointed out to him that their impact is far from being marginal and also that the field is fascinating in the difficulty in anticipating the potential success. Passion sometimes has to prevail over reason…

Taleb drove the nail with the publication last November of Antifragile, which is subtitled “things that gain from disorder.” This book is a multifaceted, sometimes messy, work, praising the artisan, the souk and the experimenter; he also criticizes the expert, often worn because too rational. Again Taleb’s ideas fit perfectly with innovation. “The fragility of every start-up is necessary for the economy to be antifragile, and that’s what makes, among other things, entrepreneurship work: the fragility of the individual entrepreneurs and their necessarily high failure rate.”

The Black Swan may have a quite simple explanation. It often has its roots in the weaknesses (for disasters) and genius (for the wonders) of the human species. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs and Lionel Messi are creators of genius. It is possible to quantify through science and technology many phenomena, but it is still difficult to measure human capabilities. Black Swans would probably not be as unpredictable if they did not have their root in the human interference in nature.

Swiss medtech start-ups and their ecosystem

Here is my seventh contribution to EPFL’s start-up of the month. It is about medtech and specifically KB medical. It’s also about the Swiss innovation ecosystem.

KB Medical, a new start-up in the world of medical technology, just announced that its fundraising effort raised 4 million Swiss francs.

The news is surprising in more ways than one. KB was founded on October 4, 2012, and the fundraising announced on October 29. It is rare for a start-up to launch with initial funding without having to go through the agonies of surviving in our ecosystem that subsists on subsidies. What’s more, this start-ups is active in an area in which private funding is less common than with the Internet and biotechnology.

These apparent surprises are, however, misleading. Szymon Kostrzewski and Philippe Bérard (the K and B of KB Medical) have been pursuing their research for years in the Biorobotics Laboratory at EPFL. They were supported by an Innogrant. Furthermore, they also received a boost from the Liechti Foundation and were winners of the National Venture 2012. Also, Szymon spent time in Boston as the winner of VentureLeaders. Therefore, the research upstream has been discreet but effective. There is probably a lesson to this announcement: there is no point in creating a start-up prematurely if it is not necessary.

Medical Technology in the Footsteps of the Watchmaking Tradition

Perhaps more importantly, the Lake Geneva region is fertile for medical technology research from the fields of micro-technologies and robotics. The famous Delta Robot is from the same laboratory of Professor Clavel. More recently, start-ups such as Endoart, Sensimed, and Aleva Neurotherapeutics succeeded at raising significant capital. And even more recently, DistalMotion from Ricardo Beira and StereoTools from Remi Charrier were launched through the support of their laboratory plus an Innogrant. These three young start-ups are distinctive for their use of extreme mechanical precision to improve the performance of delicate surgical procedures.

We often speak of engineering for local technology clusters. In the footsteps of the watch industry, the substance of SMEs specializing in medical technology was created in Switzerland. Today start-ups enrich what could resemble a Medical Valley, in the shadow of pharmaceutical giants such as Roche and Novartis and under the friendly gaze of Medtronic and Johnson and Johnson (J&J).

On the Board of KB Medical, one finds Malgosia Iwankowska who worked at J&J, Medtronic, and Sensimed. This is a technology cluster, but even more, it is human talent and a network of connections that develops and grows over the course of years. This Swiss tradition of precision quality and bespoke, however, is widely recognized, and that somewhat demystifies the intrigue of KB Medical’s remarkable news.

More infos:

Several Medtech Start-ups at EPFL

Swiss start-ups at EPFL

As much for my personal archive (a blog is a second brain!), as for you, the reader, the Swiss-German TV broadcast, “ECO” (the weekly economic magazine on SF1), talked about French-speaking Swiss start-ups at EPFL.

ECO vom 19.11.2012

The web link is Start-up-Paradies Waadtland.

And more here: Waadt ist Hotspot für Jungunternehmer




Two EPFL Start-ups Take Off in Tandem with a corporate investor

Here’s my 6th contribution to EPFL‘sstart-up of the month

29.10.12 – Industrial or financial? For a start-up, the choice of an investor is crucial. Pix4D and senseFly, young offshoots of EPFL, provide a recent example of this dilemma.

We turn our attention to EPFL start-ups following two general stories in the entrepreneurial world. This month it is a question of not one but two young offshoots. Sensefly and Pix4D made headlines at EPFL this summer. It is indeed rare that an investor announces in one day the investment of capital in two of our start-ups. What’s more, the growing number of corporate investors in relation to venture capital investors represents an interesting trend.

Drones and 3D Images
SenseFly came out of the laboratory of Dario Floreano. You may have noticed these small airplanes crossing the skies over EPFL, as well as the start-up founders who pilot them remotely. A few years ago, I was impressed by these strange flying machines that automatically avoid obstacles. Pix4D is a spin-off from the laboratory of Pascal Fua, a specialist in image processing. They produce no equipment. Instead, they devised a method for constructing 3D images from disparate two-dimensional shots.

The investor is Parrot, which I had wrote about earlier this year: Parrot and Henri Seydoux, a French success. This French company of around 700 employees shows an annual revenue of around 250 million euros. Created in 1994, it went public in Paris in 2006. After its initial launch in voice recognition and hands-free kits for cars, its founder and CEO Henri Seydoux saw the need to diversify its activities. He bought a multitude of start-ups in fields connected to the heart of his business: wireless telecommunications, image processing, games, sensors. On their own, senseFly and Pix4D began collaborating at the beginning of this year, and Parrot found a synergy with both companies. Given that, the announcement of the simultaneous investments makes perfect sense.

The Tricky Choice of an Investor
I don’t know if the heads of Pix4D and Sensefly deliberately selected a manufacturing partner over a financial one. In any case, this decision is far from easy. All founders have to weigh the options when looking for an investor. A financier has only a return on the investment on the brain, and often over a short-term. A corporate investor thinks more strategically, but at the risk of being more selfish. In contrast to a financier, the corporate investor generally does not want to see partners working with the competition. The consequences of this choice, therefore, are critical to the development of the start-up.

The good news is that start-ups in recent years seem to receive more funding in their early stages, without having to wait for revenues and clients to prove their potential. It is even more exceptional that through collaborating, two EPFL start-ups improved their commercial potential.

Hopefully future entrepreneurs will be encouraged by this favorable environment. Let me conclude by quoting J.C. Zufferey, co-founder of senseFly: “We appreciated and benefitted from the support of PSE, FIT, Venture Kick, and CTI in this adventure. I think EPFL must not relent in its efforts to train, motivate, support, and coach young entrepreneurs. This is the price to gradually develop a culture of innovation in a country where people are naturally afraid of trying.”

A Quiz to New 2012 EPFL Students

Each year, I have a small tradition of giving a start-up-related quiz to new EPFL students. Here it was:

I was in Helsinki last week and there, the chairman of Nokia gave a talk. “The world is in crisis and the only way we will solve our challenges is with creative people and entrepreneurs. […] Therefore entrepreneurship should be cherished, it is not a profession, it is a state of mind. […] Again it is a state of mind.”

EPFL 1st mission is teaching, its 2nd mission is research. Its maybe-lesser-known 3rd mission is innovation and technology transfer, which includes entrepreneurship. If you have creative ideas, we are here to support you. More on http://vpiv.epfl.ch/innogrants

To show you that that has been understood at the top of the best universities, both the President of Stanford University and the President of EPFL have been entrepreneurs, they have been the founders of 3 start-ups each. I will offer a bottle of champagne to the first student who sends me via email the names of these 6 companies. I am Herve Lebret and I support entrepreneurs at EPFL.

The answer may be found here, and more importantly, I will come back on Risto Siilasmaa’s talk – the chairman of Nokia.

Parrot and Henri Seydoux, a French success story

It is in discovering the Parrot investment in two EPFL start-ups, senseFly and Pix4D, that I was reminded a start-up which recent success I did not know. I am sometimes very much disconnected! I had indeed met its founder, Henri Seydoux, in one of these start-up conferences that were popular in the late 90s. The start-up had already received support from Sofinnova, but it was less than 5 years old and was far from its € 250 million turnover achieved in 2011 and its 700 employees it has hired since!

As usual, I could not help but get its IPO filing document, and also some older material on the French register of commerce, which allowed me to build the following capitalization table.

(Click on image to enlarge)

To learn more about Parrot, the following video is quite refreshing …

Finally, I also wanted to try to learn more about Henri Seydoux, intrigued by a fairly famous family name in France … this work is probably closer to the tabloids than this blog but hey, I find the genealogy interesting!

(Click on image to enlarge)

What’s a start-up worth, or reflections on Facebook’s IPO fiasco

Here’s my 5th contribution to EPFL‘s “start-up of the month

When its IPO was announced last February, everyone agreed that Facebook was worth somewhere in the ballpark of $100 billion. Today, Facebook has lost 40% of its value – how is this possible?

Facebook a perdu plus de 40% de sa valeur

Facebook, unfortunately, isn’t an EPFL start-up, but the controversy surrounding its overvalued stock market debut (Initial Public Offering, or IPO) nonetheless provides a good opportunity to discuss the value of a start-up, in particular, spin-offs from EPFL laboratories.

A company’s value cannot truly be measured scientifically, even though there are techniques that try to do this via revenues and profits – Logitech and Swissquote, who have historical connections with EPFL, are measured like this. The law of supply and demand rules here: the value of a company is the product of the number of shares and the price per share. Companies listed on the stock exchange are thus hostages of the market and its moods.

When companies are not listed on the stock exchange, as is the case in the majority of start-ups, they can still be valued. Interested readers can learn more in the article “Equity Split in Start-ups.” When EPFL start-ups like Eelcee, Abionic, Aleva and Kandou (see previous articles) recently announced they were looking for financing, they were valued by their investors, even though there was no market in which to buy shares. Switzerland, however, provides some information via the registre du commerce (commerce registry) in which each start-up registers the change in its number of shares. From there, if you know the amount of money that has been raised, you can deduce the price per share and thus the value of the company. But I personally wouldn’t make the calculation, out of respect for the discretion desired by the entrepreneurs and the investors.

Again, value is just a subjective thing that depends on the good will of the investors. Facebook, like Google ten years ago, didn’t completely abide by Wall Street’s rules, by which a company agrees to be under-valued at its IPO so that the ensuing trading result in an upward curve. So far, it’s just simple speculation, and we’ll have to wait several years before we know whether or not Facebook’s IPO was a failure or not.

Our start-ups have a similar problem. I’ve known many entrepreneurs who prefer that their companies have the best possible value when they were looking for funding. They forget that the only real value is that which is created over the long term by their products or services, and that the value of a company is a very volatile thing, as Facebook just illustrated so well. Entrepreneurs tend to retain the lion’s share of their companies, even though by doing this they also seem to be ignoring Logitech founder Daniel Borel’s advice: “We prefer a little pie that we control completely to a big pie that we only control 10%, and this can be a limiting factor.”

I’m convinced (even though I’m often wrong) that Zuckerberg’s impact will be similar to Brin and Page’s. Here in Switzerland, I hope that local companies are created whose value is on a par with those of Daniel Borel, Mark Bürki and Paolo Buzzi.


Facebook Finally Files For $5B

Facebook data today



Equity split in start-ups

Eelcee and composites

Two million Swiss francs for an allergy-detecting device

Swiss register of corporations