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.”

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