“EPFL is a passport that opens a lot of doors”

Alexandre Reis De Matos is in the final months of his degree program at EPFL. ©2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Alexandre Reis De Matos is in the final months of his degree program at EPFL. ©2023 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Alexandre Reis De Matos is in the final months of his degree program at EPFL. His exciting journey has taken him from the F1 racetrack to the head of an artificial intelligence (AI) startup, which he founded as part of his Master’s project.

Alexandre Reis De Matos likes a good adventure, a good challenge and good food. Speaking quickly and eloquently, he knows what he’s talking about and talks about what he knows. And he’s not afraid to go after what he wants. Now in the final year of his Master’s program, he knows that his focus for the near future will be the startup he just created, called Unki. The company has developed an AI-powered application for generating personalized travel plans. Unki has been helped along the way by the startup support programs run by EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation. The new business marks the final achievement of an education rich in learning experiences – both inside and (especially) outside the classroom.

When Reis De Matos sets his mind to something, there’s no holding him back. Originally from Portugal but raised in Geneva, he was 12 when he switched his career interest from architecture to computer science – and that’s the program he enrolled in when he reached EPFL. But even though he was a gifted student, Reis De Matos took the MAN review course in his first year, which put him “on the right track.”

Do something with a genuine impact

But the kind of track he was really interested in was the racetrack: he’d been watching the F1 Grand Prix with his father ever since he was a little boy. So when Reis De Matos, then in the third year of his Bachelor’s program, found out that the EPFL Racing Team was creating an autonomous vehicles group, he signed up right away. The group was tasked with building a self-driven racecar from start to finish – and we’re not talking about the soap-box cars of yesteryear. “What’s great about EPFL is it gives you amazing opportunities to work on concrete projects,” he says. “The only thing that could hold you back at EPFL is not having enough time or energy – but in theory, you can do anything!”

The first step in building the racecar was putting together a solid team. “This experience taught me a lot about team management,” says Reis De Matos. Although he jumped into the venture with little experience, he soon found he enjoyed it – especially the technical aspects. And after a year, he set the bar even higher: he applied to become president of the EPFL Racing Team. Once elected, he found himself at the head of an 80-strong club. “I love speaking and meeting new people, but I had no idea how to lead an organization,” he says. “But it was a unique opportunity to get away from the engineering and theory and do something with a genuine impact.”

The only thing that could hold you back at EPFL is not having enough time or energy – but in theory, you can do anything!

Alexandre Reis De Matos, master student in data science

Reis De Matos adds: “It was really intense. I had a lot of balls to juggle, between managing the club and its various groups, looking for sponsors, taking part in competitions, staying on top of my classwork and holding down a part-time job I’d gotten as a DJ to supplement my student budget.” As much as he enjoyed it, he eventually decided to move on, leaving the EPFL Racing Team in September 2022. He thought the experience would make him want to work for a professional racing team, but that’s not what happened. “I love racecars, but not enough to make them my job.”

Instead, Reis De Matos was attracted to the idea of creating a startup – and in particular, one to address a real thorn in his side: while he loved eating out with friends and traveling to exotic destinations, he found that planning these things could be a hassle. So he again turned his leisure pursuits into an EPFL project, developing the application and setting up Unki. The firm has just completed its first crowdfunding round and is starting small, working with local tourist offices to implement the software to produce travel itineraries. “We eventually hope to develop a website where our AI algorithm will handle everything – reservations, payments, selecting the most attractive offers, and suggesting the best travel options – all based on users’ preferences,” he says. A dream for busy travelers!

As far as possible

Today it looks like the dream could one day become a reality. And that’s thanks to the people Reis De Matos met at EPFL and the programs he’s participated in. Among the people who’ve made an influence, he notes Prof. Anne-Marie Kermarrec at the Scalable Computing Systems Laboratory. “She completely changed the course of my EPFL education,” says Reis De Matos. “She was the first professor who took my ideas seriously, supported me and stood by me the entire time. She could see where I wanted to go in terms of the technical features of my application and advised me accordingly. What’s more, since she also has startup experience, she could advise me on the business aspects, too.”

After Reis De Matos and Prof. Kermarrec developed an initial version of the algorithm, he applied for EPFL’s blaze startup accelerator program. That’s when Unki’s other cofounder – Gabriel Veigas Marques, an EPFL Master’s student in robotics – joined the team. The two engineers completed the blaze program in the spring 2023 semester. “The program head, Maurice Gaillard, is very business-oriented,” says Reis De Matos. “He was an amazing resource. The more we asked for his advice, the more willing he was to help out. You get the feeling he’s personally invested in seeing the startups succeed.” Blaze was the crowning touch of his engineering education at EPFL and showed him just how powerful the School can be. “EPFL is a passport that opens a lot of doors,” he says. Reis De Matos was allowed to combine his Master’s project with his startup, under Prof. Kermarrec’s supervision. He will defend his thesis in March, bringing his time at EPFL to a close. But he’s determined to “take Unki as far as possible.”

Encouraging young entrepreneurs
EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation runs a number of support programs for budding entrepreneurs, including: Changemakers (the key element of EPFL’s Future Leaders initiative), where students spend 12 weeks turning their business ideas into potential startups; startup Master’s projects, where students can flesh out a business idea as part of their Master’s research (supervised by an EPFL research lab and assisted by a business coach), allowing them to more easily combine new business creation with their coursework; and blaze, the startup accelerator introduced in 2021, where students spend three months getting advice from experts in corporate finance, communications and other business functions. Blaze participants also join a network of business contacts and can receive up to CHF 10,000 in non-dilutive funding.

Author: Anne-Muriel Brouet

Source: Innovation

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