26.4.2022 – In March 2016, the EPFL welcomed Sonceboz, a Swiss company founded in 1936 and specializing in mechatronic drive systems for demanding environments, which has set up its innovation cell at the campus. Although the school already had links with this high-tech company through a number of graduates working there, Sonceboz’s decision to assign three full-time employees to the on-campus site was based on a host of different reasons. We discuss this with Olivier Pajot, Innovation Cell Manager at Sonceboz, who breaks down the fruitful six-year partnership and the multiple innovative joint projects arising from it.
Innovating, reinventing, and envisioning the future. These ideas form the foundation of the partnership with the EPFL, and more specifically with the EPFL Innovation Park and Sonceboz. Innovation is key for this cutting-edge industrial company which manufactures all of its products in Switzerland, but innovation can be challenging if you are not also looking outside of the box.
“In 2016, when we decided to send three people to the EPFL site, we had two goals in mind: Exploring or applying our expertise to new areas, and taking advantage of new technologies through partnerships with laboratories, start-ups, and the students. Both of these goals feed into each other, but they also require us to step out of our comfort zone, come to grips with new technologies, and learn new concepts, skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking,” explains Olivier Pajot, Innovation Cell Manager.
The importance of being nearest
While plenty of companies are talking the talk about innovation, are they also walking the walk? It is certainly not often that we see companies include innovation in their specifications, integrate it into their values, or embrace it as a part of their very DNA. However, Olivier continues, “being innovative means being open. One of the best ways of doing this is proximity between academic innovation – in this case EPFL – and the companies where projects are carried out and decisions are made. There are three of us currently working full-time on Campus. Our role is to act as a link between the company’s needs and those of the stakeholders at the EPFL Innovation Park who are involved in our projects. We also sometimes need to translate between the languages of academia and business. Because this work is being entrusted to a small dedicated team, we have a lot more room to maneuver, and we can take a trial and error approach safe in the knowledge that any failures won’t have a significant impact on Sonceboz. We believe that any company that wants to innovate should do the same, and should find a way to be close to centers of innovation while staying connected to their own production sites.” The EPFL and EPFL Innovation Park, which bring together no less than 11,000 students, 350 laboratories and dozens of companies, was an obvious choice for Sonceboz, whose production site is only about 100 kilometers away.
The role of the Key Account Manager
As well as the geographical proximity allowing for close ties and joint projects, another advantage of the EPFL is the representatives who are in place for all of the companies that arrive at the Innovation Park. Collaborating, exploring new opportunities, and creating synergies all fall within the purview of the Key Account Managers, appointed by the Vice Presidency for Innovation. They act as facilitators, or go-betweens, to create links between people.
Our role here is to support companies in what we call their innovation journey. We help them in making the most of the services we have on campus for their particular needs.Liana Ugnat Mansour, Key Account Manager, Vice Presidency for Innovation, EPFL
“Sonceboz has been on site for six years now, during which time Olivier Pajot and his team have become more familiar with the Campus as a whole, building strong and smooth relationships. As a result, they’re now able to operate perfectly independently in making contacts, building relationships, and launching partnerships. This is exactly what we want for all the companies we support; we love it when we’re able to step back and leave them to do whatever they need to do, however they want to do it. At this point, Sonceboz has reached such a level of maturity that I even find myself asking Olivier for advice on some new companies that arrive on campus. We share a single vision with all of our partners at the Innovation Park, which is maximizing opportunities between EPFL and the companies we host, creating a win-win situation for everyone,” adds Liana.
Making connections and developing projects: a success across the board
Over these six years, Sonceboz has had a number of examples of partnerships that it has been able to enter into with various stakeholders on campus. First, there are the students themselves. Every semester, the company offers six-month internships to two or three students, giving them the chance to get hands-on experience working on a long-term project.
Next are the start-ups. There are plenty of examples of successful partnerships here, such as Insolight, a solar panel company, who worked with Sonceboz in developing an integrated micro-positioning system. Rubbing shoulders with start-ups is also a source of new ideas for companies, as they often have new and disruptive business models.
Another partnership on a different scale was when Sonceboz worked with Logitech to co-develop a next-generation mouse wheel, changing how scrolling feels for the user.
On top of this, we have the work with the EPEL laboratories which have helped Sonceboz to develop very compact, powerful, and smart actuators for innovative applications in robots. These are likely to see use in exoskeletons, cobots, and, on a wider scale, any tool designed to assist or interact with human users.
The campus is like a fertile field, brimming with experts and strong personalities, all of them driven by a desire to innovate. It’s a source of great challenges, both for the company as a whole and on a personal level. Being in close contact with this community of people looking to overcome challenges and create tomorrow’s technology is not just exciting, it’s also hugely motivating.
Olivier Pajot, Innovation Cell Manager, Sonceboz