The Innovator of the Month

January 2016

An interview with Yann Cotte, CEO and Co-founder of Nanolive

By Sandra Sulser & Maria Broggi
Nanolive is a two year old hightech startup based at EPFL. They have raised multiple millions from private investors and won numerous awards for their development of the 3D Cell Explorer, a revolutionary tomographic microscope to look instantly inside living cells in 3D.

IF Lausanne: Hi, can you briefly describe yourself, what you do, and why you think you are here today?
Yann: Hi, my name is Yann Cotte and I am the CEO of Nanolive. During my PhD in Physics at EPFL, together with my colleagues I had the chance to make a fundamental discovery in microscopy. Afterwards I decided to utilize this new technology to create a product which could be useful for almost everyone from researchers to students as in my case. I founded a company: Nanolive and got the best qualified and motivated people on board who helped me to accomplish this mission. I guess these are the main reasons for which I am here today.

IF Lausanne: What does the concept of being an innovator mean to you? What should a person do to become one?
Yann: I believe that an Innovator is someone able to bring something better than what existed before to the public. Something new, more useful and usable. To do so, one needs to permanently question himself, hurry up to make all the necessary errors as soon as possible (then they cost you less), continually check and refine the vision, and be ready to walk the extra mile ;-)

IF Lausanne: Do you consider yourself an Innovator? And what about the others, do people consider you and the technology you invented as innovative?
Yann: This is a difficult question to answer, I would start from the second one, well, if you invited me to give this interview, I guess yes, people consider me an innovator and yes, no doubts about the technology. We created a revolutionary product, a microscope, which enables scientists, MDs but also undergrad students to finally look inside living cells without any marker, any stain and any preparation of the sample.
About how I consider myself, I have never thought about myself as an innovator. I just always did what I love to do. When I decided to create Nanolive I set a target and I worked for it every day (and many nights) with passion and determination. It was not easy all the time but I had the chance to meet very talented and motivated people who shared with me the same challenge and walked by my side during these last two years of success and challenges.

IF Lausanne: We heard you just launched your 3D Cell Explorer at one of the biggest cell biology conferences in the world: ASCB 2015. Do you want to tell us something more about? 
Yann: It was awesome, a dream come true. The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting is THE biggest cell biology meeting in the world and a yearly International conference taking place in the USA which groups, every year, few thousands of cell biology researchers from all around the world. This is the second time for Nanolive at ASCB. ASCB2014 was the first big conference we ever attended. We went there with no microscope, and totally unaware of what was exactly waiting for us. It came out to be a huge success. This year we decided to have our official product launch over there and we were proven right. People were just amazed by the 3D Cell Explorer. During the whole conference, we never stopped doing demos and having people over at our booth. The launch event took place on the last night of the conference, two hours after the exhibit hall was already closed. We were seriously afraid that no one would have showed up but, surprise, we hold our keynote lecture in a 50 people room and I can tell that the public was at least the double, half was just standing. Everyone had plenty of questions and many people expressed the desire to order a microscope.

IF Lausanne: What were the most difficult moments and the most exciting ones in your entrepreneurial adventure? The biggest satisfactions?
Yann: As for everyone who is starting a new business, the most challenging moment is actually the beginning, when you are alone presenting an idea, with no product, no team, no money. You come out from academia, you have no entrepreneurial experience and you need to learn fast in order to convince people to trust you and your idea and to help you to realize it. After this first challenge you realize that the learning process just started. You have to hire a team and to learn how to manage people. You might lose some of the best members of your team, for many different reasons and you need to accept their decision, understand it and try to find a replacement for them (for us this happened more than once...). But then you understand that everything happens for a reason and every bad experience makes you stronger. Next time you will be prepared to react faster and more effectively.
About the most exciting ones, the whole 2015 was a year of great success for Nanolive. Beside the realization of the commercial product and the market launch, we were also honored by many many important awards and prizes: We started in February with the “50 start-ups in which to invest” from Le Bilan, immediately accompanied by the memorable success from the Pionierpreis & the FIT, the same month. PERL prize followed in May together with the Photonics technology award received in Munich in June. In August, the international Microscopy Today Innovation Award gave us great credibility among the American scientific community. In September, we made our entry into the Top100 Swiss start-ups. Then the “Oscar of Invention” was announced in Las Vegas during the 2015 R&D 100 Awards & Technology Conference. Finally in December we obtained The Scientist's Top 10 Innovations of 2015.

August 2015

An interview with Kristen M. Lorentz & Stephan Kontos, Co-founders of Anokion

By Sandra Sulser & Manuel Fankhauser
Anokion is a company based at EPFL lead by a diverse team of entrepreneurial scientists and industry-weathered professionals, striving to achieve the goal of offering antigen-specific immunotherapy to patients worldwide.

IF Lausanne: The science behind your startup „Anokion“ came out of your thesis research. What were the most important ingredients present in your lab environment that allowed you to transform your research into a startup?
Stephan: Launching Anokion from Jeff Hubbell's lab at the EPFL definitely benefited from the diversity of resources and talent within the group. The technology we developed required mastery of a gamut of techniques, from molecular biology and biochemistry to conducting fairly intricate immunological modeling in the mouse, all of which were present in the lab, including to this day. Jeff works hard to ensure his lab is particularly well-funded, which meant that we almost always had the right tools and reagents to conduct key, value-driven experiments. It helped that the collegial environment of the group meant a potential solution to a technical hurdle could be readily available in the form of a labmate’s advice, and the quality of the core facilities in Life Sciences added to the scope of work that was possible to conduct efficiently. Of course, an essential ingredient was Jeff’s interest and experience in translating life science technologies to clinical development through start ups, and without his support and guidance, it would have been far more difficult to have built Anokion into what it is today.

IF Lausanne: What were the main factors that made you decide to go for a career as scientist-entrepreneurs rather than for an academic career?
Stephan and Kristen: In academia, one is taught to test a hypothesis with the scientific process of experimentation - the culmination of which may be aimed at sharing gained knowledge in public forms, such as peer-reviewed journals and conferences.
In the biotechnology industry, the litmus test of success may be creation of a product and validation in human clinical trials. Although the latter path is typically longer, riskier, and fraught with failures, we draw great satisfaction in working to translate scientific work into tangible products that may improve people’s lives. So, with Jeff as a guide, we jumped into the world of biotechnology entrepreneurship and have not looked back!

IF Lausanne: What are the top three pro’s and con’s of having chosen to become scientist-entrepreneurs?
Stephan and Kristen:
  • Bringing a novel technological or therapeutic solution to the world is a very gratifying reason to come to work every day.
  • Becoming deeply involved in many aspects of a company’s process that would have taken far longer to experience in larger companies.
  • Building an entire company from the ground-up is an exhilarating process, as is getting to develop company strategies and to choose who you work with.
  •   Cons:
  • There are numerous personal sacrifices along the entrepreneurial path, some of which are difficult to harmonize with family and social life.
  • The risks one is required to take are diverse in type, and rather substantial, so one must be prepared for the eventual possibility of failure.
  • At times you need to jump into a role that you have no previous experience in, and this can be stressful, especially if you are the type to strive to surpass expectations.

  • IF Lausanne: What are the most challenging situations that you encounter as young entrepreneurs in a field that is dominated by more senior people with years of experience?
    Stephan: In the vast majority of interactions with potential investors and partners, I have never felt that age discrepancies were an issue, but perhaps this is due to the fact that our founding team included those with extensive experience in entrepreneurship. Had we been a team all in our 20’s, my experience might have been different, and I might have sensed this. In general, I have found that investors and potential partners are a sharp bunch - if you have a brilliant idea and pitch it well, they will recognize this and help you harness the potential, regardless of what year you were born.

    IF Lausanne: Millennials –the generation who is currently coming onto the professional stage – are known to be highly ambitious, highly connected, somewhat narcissistic, and unbelieving in authority. Do you feel like this description fits you?
    Stephan: An interesting question – am I considered a Millenial? The increase in personal media platforms and general sense of immediate gratification that have grown to be the social norms stemming from the growth of the internet simply did not exist when I was younger, so perhaps my point of view, as someone born in 1984, greatly differs from someone born 15 years later. However, I would think that ambition is indeed a significant trait of my character, whereas I usually find myself turned off by those with substantial amounts of the latter two characteristics. For better or worse, entrepreneurship and academia are worlds populated with egos, but I have been lucky enough to be mentored by brilliant yet humble scientists. A characteristic you have not listed above, but that I believe is essential to success in entrepreneurship, is a hard work ethic. In my opinion, it does not matter how well-connected, brilliant, or ambitious you might be if you do not also do the following: work hard - and quite frankly, work very hard. This is perhaps an old cliché, but I feel its value in success should not be overshadowed by other factors such as academic pedigree or personal connections in an industry. I like to think good things come to those with a hard work ethic.

    IF Lausanne: Being part of the Millennials, what do you think differentiates you from previous generations of entrepreneurs? 
    Stephan and Kristen: This generation of entrepreneurs has the key advantage of existing in a highly-connected world at a time where gender and race discrimination continue to decline. It is wonderful to be part of a generation where high quality education can be streamed online to areas of the world bereft of advanced schooling, and to individuals across the income spectrum. Access to cutting-edge technologies and the latest scientific reporting is much more rapid (if not instantaneous) than before, meaning that the hurdle to getting your message out, or identifying accompanying technology or techniques to improve on your own, is far lower than ever before. On the other hand, competition is tough, so differentiating oneself from the noise and gaining access to capital may take more effort than in decades past. This creates somewhat of a loop whereby we have to become even better at what we do in order to succeed, which I believe is a good thing for the entrepreneurial world.

    IF Lausanne: What do you think are the most important factors that could drive more scientist from the Millennial Generation into becoming biotech entrepreneurs?
    Stephan and Kristen: A key to fostering entrepreneurial success is a fertile environment, and it all starts with academic rigor coupled with creativity.  Ensuring those aspects are present in the pillars of an education system definitely plants a seed from which a biotech entrepreneur might arise.  In my opinion, the love of entrepreneurship alone is not sufficient to create a success - the recipe is far more complex, with the main ingredient being the innovative technology and its path to a valuable application (and in biotech, a clinical application). Thus, teaching entrepreneurship in universities may assist in fostering a fertile environment, but is no replacement for the quality of the scientific curriculum  In biotechnology, access to lab space is an absolute necessity, yet is has become increasingly difficult to find in the area, and I would hope that this is recognized by local economic developers as a potential for growth.  

    IF Lausanne: What is your longterm vision for Anokion?
    Stephan and Kristen: Anokion is still in its infancy, yet I feel we have already accomplished quite a bit. We recently embarked on a partnership with Astellas Pharma to leverage our antigen-specific immune tolerance technology to develop targeted therapies for type-1 diabetes and celiac disease, through our sister company Kanyos Bio. This first alliance is an exciting prospect for Anokion to showcase our technology in indications that we would otherwise not have had the resources to pursue at this time. At Anokion, we remain focused on developing new-generation therapeutic proteins that do not induce dangerous immune responses generated by the patient - the so called “anti-drug antibody responses” that are induced when a patient's immune system perceives the beneficial therapeutic protein as foreign and mounts an immune attack against the drug. We have a few therapeutics in our internal pipeline, with the goal of taking them through clinical development and into human Phase I trials in the near future. Given the broad applicability of the technology, we will continue to pursue partnerships in autoimmunity and in protein drug tolerization, where we find exceptional cases for potential. Our vision is to grow Anokion into a specialty biotechnology company, creating novel tolerizing therapeutics for patients worldwide.

    June 2015

    An interview with Stanisa Raspopovic, Co-founder of SensArs Neuroprostethics

    By Ksenia Tugay, Photo credits: Stanisa Raspopovic
    SensArs Neuroprostethics is an award winning EPFL spin-off offering prosthetic limbs to upper- and lower-limb amputees and nerve-damaged persons. SensArs mission is restoring complete sensory-motor functionality, diminishing phantom limb pain and enabling them to feel the artificial limb as part of their own body.

    IF Lausanne: How did SensArs Neuroprosthetics start?
    Stanisa: Francesco Petrini (SensArs Neuroprosthetics co-founder) and I were involved in a research on amputees (collaboration of EPFL and two top research institutes in Italy) where we have obtained some very impressive data. We decided to make a patent on top of it and it seemed that potential application was very appealing to the people. It was an idea guided by a real need. We never thought that we want to become billionaires, we just realized how many people we could help and that pushed us forward.

    IF Lausanne: Weren’t you afraid of failing?
    Stanisa: We were quite realistic about the fact that many mature companies might be developing similar project, however we saw the need and we had a capability of delivering the product. And that was our motivation.

    IF Lausanne: What do you think were the issues that you have underestimated when becoming an entrepreneur and founding your own company?
    Stanisa: The quantity of questions you receive… (Laughing). I am joking. Probably the costs of clinical trials and neurostimulators. For instance, if you make a convincing research in rodents, you still have to show that it will work in humans, you have to perform clinical trials and those are quite pricy.

    IF Lausanne: How many people are currently working in your company and do you have advisors?
    Stanisa: We are currently 4 employed people in our company. We have two technical advisors, two business advisors and clinical studies advisors. If you want to go far, you need to have a good and strong team. I can’t highlight enough how important it is to have good advisors. Never pretend to do what you don’t know.

    IF Lausanne: What are your plans for the next 5 years?
    Stanisa: Our company has a very aggressive, however very realistic timeline. For the next 2 years we will be finalizing the development of neurostimulator implant and additional certification for the electrodes (several parts of the very advanced prosthetics developed by SN), for the further 2 years we complete the second round of extensive clinical trials and further we apply for certification in Europe.

    IF Lausanne: And what do you like to do in your free time?
    Stanisa:With SN is only work and no fun. (Laughing) The beautiful thing is that I am lucky to work with my friends and we travel together for work and have a lot of fun together. It is a venture, but it is also an adventure.

    IF Lausanne: What would be your advice for the young entrepreneurs?
    Stanisa: Ah, so we are old entrepreneurs therefore? (Laughing) Try to verify whether there is a real need for your product. Challenge your idea.

    May 2015

    An interview with Justin Picard, Co-founder and CEO of ScanTrust

    By Sandra Sulser, Photo credits: Endre Horvat
    Why did you become an entrepreneur?
    Because it is so much more exciting when you feel you have your destiny in your hands!
    My entrepreneurial mindset developed initially during the time I was doing my PhD, and afterwards when I worked (as an employee) at different startups. What drives me is to invent and develop new technology solutions that help solve the massive problem of counterfeiting, but at some point I realised the only way to push through my ideas and vision was to get in the driving seat and become an entrepreneur.
    What's your biggest (daily) challenge?
    Our startup is driven by the vision that counterfeiting can be stopped by empowering consumers and the brand to verify a product's authenticity with their smartphone. My biggest challenge is to ensure that everyone on the team, myself included, is doing everyday the right thing that will bring us closer to this ultimate objective.
    What's your most important message for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
    Should I interpret this question as being already part of the old generation? :)
    If you have a promising idea and business, tons of opportunities will appear along the way, and a number of people will come to you and offer their help. This is great as you cannot succeed alone, and a very encouraging validation of your idea in the beginning. However it is easy to be carried away, and the challenge is to not lose your focus and divert important resources by following too many opportunities at once, or opportunities for which you are not ready. This means that you will have to resist the temptations that appear along the way, and learn to say "no" more often than "yes".
    Tell me something I don't know…
    I started skateboarding one year ago. Like entrepreneurship, it is a risky (and sometimes painful) activity, but equally exciting and rewarding!

    Meet Justin in person!

    He will be our guest on the roundtable discussion on Innovation Policy on May 13th. Frind more information here

    April 2015

    Visiting Carmelo Bisognano, Co-Founder of UniverCité

    By Ksenia Tugay, Photo credits: Carmelo Bisognano and Nicolas Genta
    I approach a huge industrial building somewhere in Renens. Dr. Carmelo Bisognano (co-founder of UniverCité) welcomes me at the front door with a big smile on his face.
    He opens the door by pressing his plastic card to the electronic lock and we enter the building. Coming up to the second floor we enter a huge space with machines and boxes everywhere.
    "Just 6 months ago there was nothing here! And look around now!"
    I pass by some Sequencer and PCR machines. With a touch of vintage, but looking completely functional.

    All the equipment was donated. And that is a funny thing that we don’t realize sometimes. You do not always need high technology last edition machinery to make simple scientific experiments.
    The idea is not new. The concept of open and community-driven citizen biology lab focusing on fast prototyping of low-cost projects already existed in Paris. However UniverCité is probably one of the biggest open lab spaces in Europe. The place looks completely futuristic to me. Lab space and comfortable working area, and there is even a Trone arcade machine in the corner.

    Hackuarium is not a public lab associated to any Univesity. In that sense they are completely independent and autonomous to chose their own projects and develop their own ideas.
    It is a place of incredible freedom and inspiration. Creativity is in the air. Here extremely gifted people from different disciplines gather together in their free time to develop complex projects. The format is informal and very different from academic science. But this does not mean that they can do anything they want. Each new project is evaluated by two highly professional managers for its feasibility and accordance to ethical policy.

    Impressive that Hackuarium has started its activities not so long ago and there are already several exciting projects going on.
    Bio Ink, soil decontamination, robot that will be sent to the South Pole, Bioinspired Designs – these are just a few exciting things going on here.
    So what about the commercial aspect?
    "Of course the idea of do it yourself biology is open access. However, if we come up with something commercially attractive we can create a company on top of it."
    Apart from Hackuarium there are several companies and associations located at UniverCité (FixMe, Swiss Koo and soon a brewery Nebuleuse). The companies are being attracted by the unique spirit of innovation, inspiration, fun, creativity as well as unique type of thinking outside the box.