EPFL students acquire a taste for entrepreneurship
In 2018, EPFL introduced a program whereby highly motivated Master’s students can create a startup for their Master’s projects. We spoke with two recent graduates who used the program to launch their own businesses.
EPFL’s ecosystem is highly conducive to new business creation, with 32 innovative, fast-growing startups spun off from the School in 2021 alone. And EPFL’s startups together raised nearly CHF 800 million in funding last year. While most of these businesses were created by PhD students, postdocs and alumni, an increasing number of Bachelor’s and Master’s students are wanting to try their hand at entrepreneurship. To help them along, EPFL introduced a program for Master’s students in 2018 allowing those with a feasible business idea to create a startup for their degree projects. Students in the program receive advice and assistance from a business coach and EPFL’s new Blaze business accelerator. In turn, the students commit to incorporating a new company within a few months.
Sami El Bouari, today a mechanical engineering graduate, took advantage of the program to create Evoly, a company that makes smart power meters. “Our systems use long-range, or LoRa, radio communications technology, which is much cheaper and less power-hungry than the technology employed in conventional meters,” he says. “As a result, our meters cost five times less than those currently on the market. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy estimates it currently costs around CHF 460 to replace a meter for just one household, so you can see where our competitive advantage lies.” In addition to its low-cost meters, Evoly also supplies data analytics software that power-grid operators can use to continuously monitor the status of their grids and address problems as soon as they arise.
Jean-Baptiste Beau is another entrepreneur who went through the program. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from EPFL before enrolling in the School’s Master’s program in Management of Technology & Entrepreneurship. For his Master’s project, he chose to create a company based on an idea he’d been working on for a while: developing an app that can teach users how to control their dreams. “First, users enter their dreams in our app’s journal feature when they wake up, helping them to remember their dreams,” says Beau. “Then our app analyses the dreams based on the latest knowledge in psychology and neuroscience about the dreaming process. The results help users identify recurring themes, for example.” Eventually, the app – called Oniri – will include a section showing users how to have lucid dreams, in which you’re aware that you’re dreaming.
The Master’s entrepreneurship program was set up by EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation (VPI). Ten students have already launched businesses through their Master’s projects, and three more are in the works. “The program is designed to give Master’s students who want to create a startup the time, support and know-how to do so – with their work being included as part of their studies and degree programs,” says Margaux Pagès, head of student entrepreneurship at EPFL. “Students can meet the criteria for their Master’s projects and in-company internships while exploring a business opportunity.”
But the startup path doesn’t exempt students from the academic rigor expected of Master’s projects. The techniques used in Oniri, for example, are based in part on research conducted by Sophie Schwartz, a neuroscientist at the University of Geneva who is studying cerebral activity during dreams and who co-supervised Beau’s Master’s project. And El Bouari teamed up with EPFL’s Embedded Systems Laboratory to develop technology for Evoly.
These two young companies are growing quickly. Evoly secured its first customer in November 2020 through an order for around a hundred smart meters. El Bouari and his small team worked hard to get them all made and delivered on time. “Right now our goal is to raise funds and hire more staff,” he says. “Only then will we seek to acquire bigger customers interested in purchasing thousands of meters.”
Meanwhile, Beau’s app is already available on iPhone with an Android version scheduled to come out this summer. It has been downloaded over 200,000 times and has 25,000 active users and more than half a million dreams recorded in its journal. “Now that our business plan is solid, we plan to roll out a marketing campaign in order to improve our revenue and key figures,” says Beau. “Then we’ll seek funding so we can form a team of four or five full-time employees by end-2022.”
More and more students are setting out to create their own companies. “Since we opened the Student Launchpad in January 2021, ten student-led startups have been incorporated through that initiative,” says Pagès. “And we can realistically expect four to six more to be incorporated before this year is out.”