04.05.2020 – Part of our remit as a world-leading university is to support pioneering technology – moving it from an idea in a lab, to a product with the potential to change people’s lives. Entrepreneurship and supporting the commercialization of ideas and technologies is the heart of what the Startup Unit is doing. In addition, as from 1st April 2020, the Vice Presidency for Innovation can count on a new team made up of Andre Catana as EPFL Head of the Startup Unit and Isabel Casado as EPFL Startup Program Manager. Marc Gruber, Vice President for Innovation could caught up with Andre and Isabel (via zoom, of course!) to see how they were settling in.
Here is their interview
What motivated you to take on this new role?
Andre: Ever since I started my career at EPFL, I’ve had a passion to help the next generation of innovators to move their ideas from lab to market. A key driver for me is helping them develop their mindsets as entrepreneurs. The Startup Unit is a unique place to engage with them, to help them bringing their inventions to life, and supporting them as they raise interest for investment. We want to seed more urgency in entrepreneurs – encouraging them to reach out to potential customers as early as possible in the startup journey. Our role is to help them think bigger, think different.
Isabel: I’ve been at EPFL for nearly 3 years and I continue to be amazed by the range of innovation I get exposed to. I want to work closely with the EPFL labs, helping them validate their ideas, and assessing their viability in the markets of tomorrow. It is critical to help entrepreneurs focus on the customer – not just the technology. Ultimately, I want to empower entrepreneurs make their ideas happen and help EPFL start-ups shine.
What ideas do you have for the Startup Unit moving forward?
Isabel: EPFL offers a vibrant ecosystem for startups to thrive. The EPFL Startup Unit has supported hundreds of startups over the years and we want to build on that success.EPFL Innogrants was put in place 15 years ago and now, it’s part of the EPFL Startup DNA. Innogrants are a unique support mechanism for incubating startups in our labs. The Innogrant is selective, targeting deep tech startup projects with a clear path to market.
We want to expand and adapt our offering. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be launching a new grant – Ignition Grant. This will offer an initial kick support for promising EPFL spin-off projects in need of shaping their product-market fit.
Another example is the more recent EPFL Xgrants, a highly valued program for our talented student entrepreneurs. We want to continue to engage with this community and to broaden the scope of our offer. We want to expose talented students with different backgrounds and skills to our startup projects. An EPFL startup internship program will allow them to get a real taste of the startup world and add value to the projects. Ultimately, the program will provide opportunities for them to onboard as co-founders or key employees.
Andre: We know starting the journey to commercialization can be a daunting one. We will be offering the expertise and vision to help entrepreneurs “derisk” and accelerate their projects – unlocking their true potential and commercial application.
We’ll do this in three ways:
- Grants – making the complex simple with a distinctive EPFL funding scheme addressing all stages of the incubation phase
- Innovations services – we bring in the right support at the right time to address key pain points. For instance, we know how important it is to have a well thought through working prototype to reach out to potential customers and raise the first funding. A prototyping and design service will allow startuppers to work with designers and other service providers to reach these goals.
- Community – we help building partnerships to extend the startup support. We want to build a strong network of specialists to nurture and enrich our ecosystem. We will also be strengthening our ties with key players across the sector through thematic calls and programs. Keep your eyes out for a joint call with the Wyss Center in the next few days!
You started your new role on April 1st and in isolation. What’s that been like?
Isabel: Well, firstly I need to say the EPFL IT team has done an amazing job in supporting a smooth transition to remote working. Kudos to all of them! It’s always a little bit odd to start a new job on April Fool’s Day. In this particular case, I got to share that special start with my two young boys at home – there was a lot of joking going around! So let’s just say, there was a lot of laughing in my “office” that day, what more can I ask of a new role? My future open space colleagues are warned.
Andre: Oh, yes, starting in remote mode is a strange feeling, especially when engaging with people is as important as it is for me. But don’t we learn from startups that the capacity for pivoting is a key for success..!?
More about Andre:
Andre holds Masters in Electronics from ETHZ and PhD in Physics from EPFL. After working at IBM Research Labs in Rüschlikon, Andre joined EPFL. He is the co-founder of the EPFL’s Technology Transfer Office and part of the core team that launched the first programs for startup support in the late 90’s. Ever since, Andre continuously engaged in creating and growing instruments for accelerating and derisking the startup journey.
More about Isabel:
Isabel holds a Masters in Computer Science from EPFL. She spent over 15 years in Fortune 500 companies, implementing innovative IT services and products. Her personal drive lies in bringing technologies and talent together. Isabel had the opportunity to build and lead international teams. She joined EPFL’s enable program in 2017, rapidly becoming an active and recognized member of our innovation ecosystem.