24.03.17 – As part of their degree programs, EPFL students spend several months far from the academic world, working on internships or master’s projects. And the businesses that take them get not only a rewarding experience, but also a valuable source of innovation.
Making a foray into the business world is an essential rite of passage for all EPFL engineering students. They must spend 2–6 months working for a company, after which they can also opt for an in-company master’s project to cap off their studies (see text box). EPFL carefully selects which businesses can work with its students. “We try to make sure the internships are really worthwhile, which we gauge during the selection process, by keeping in touch with the students throughout the internship and in the students’ final report ,” said Daniele Mari, deputy director and internship coordinator of the physics section.
A wellspring of innovation
But EPFL’s strict requirements haven’t dented companies’ interest – there are twice as many positions available than students seeking them. “Last year 2,000 internships were offered to the 1,024 students in our 18 master’s programs,” said Catherine Marselli Pasquier, EPFL’s internship coordinator.
The reason why businesses are so enthusiastic is that EPFL students are known for delivering concrete results – and for bringing a healthy dose of creativity to the table. “Students look at the challenges we face in a different way, leveraging new skills and taking a different approach,” said Jean-Michel Chardon, Senior Director at Logitech and an EPFL alumnus. He finds that with its dozen interns every year, his company clearly comes out ahead. “They allow us to launch 12 projects at a time. And they are brimming with ideas. It’s a rewarding program that lets us innovate in so many different areas.”
Josep Solà i Carós, a biomedical expert at CSEM in Neuchâtel, agrees. “Students often surprise us with their bright ideas for solving problems. This is especially true in project development, where they frequently come up with suggestions that are easy to implement,” he said.
Support for small businesses
The students’ self-motivation is something else that businesses appreciate. “They are quickly capable of taking on new projects,” said Sylvain Monnier-Benoit from Novigenix, a startup based in Epalinges. “The support provided by our interns allowed us to move forward at key points in our business development. We were happy to have them.” Another local company, Dentsply Sirona in Ballaigues, takes on one or two students a year. “These internships are really a win-win situation. We have to spend a month training them, but afterwards they are very productive and enable us to try things out that we wouldn’t be able to with our regular staff,” said Yanik Tardy, Vice President of R&D.
“The best possible transition”
As delighted as businesses are by their interns, the feeling goes both ways. Luc Conti, an EPFL microengineering student, spent several months at Debiotech in Lausanne, excited “to be able to work as part of a team on a real product, making a tangible impact.” Electrical engineering student Firmin Manoury completed an internship at Romande Énergie and then a master’s project at Renault in France, in a laboratory specialized in vehicle connectivity systems. “That crystallized my interest in this specific field. Taking the first steps into the business world while still receiving the support of my EPFL professor was the best possible transition from academia into professional life,” he said.
Eve Carletti, an electrical engineering student, completed both a six-month internship and a master’s project at Microchip Technology. “I had the supervision I needed but was still encouraged to take the initiative,” she said. And it was clearly a positive experience on both sides, because the firm hired her as soon as she graduated. Indeed, many students go on to be hired by the companies they work for. “We hire about 20% of our interns,” said Solà i Carós. “The advantage is that they already know our company. Internships bring us a lot of benefits in the short and long term.”
Internships also give businesses an opportunity to form ties with EPFL laboratories. That could open the door to broader joint research projects financed by Switzerland’s Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), which aims to encourage technology transfer to industry.