EPFLinnovators: Arnout Devos
EPFLinnovators is an industry-oriented doctoral fellowship program based in the dynamic environment of the EPFL campus. The doctoral fellows – trained in an academic as well as non-academic setting – are set to become true innovators, equipped with a broad set of scientific, transferable, and business skills.
We will introduce you to Arnout Devos, who is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie EPFLinnovators fellow in computer science and a co-founder of OkNoName.com, a modern and anonymous question and answer (Q&A) forum for university courses.
1) What inspired you to start your entrepreneurial venture?
As a PhD student at EPFL during the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed a large gap in online course interaction. In the summer of 2020, this led to the development of the modern course forum OkNoName.com as a side project. On this platform, students and course staff can interact throughout the term via Q&A, anonymously if they like. The platform also has advanced formatting and math functionality. Although the platform is mostly free, some instructors who buy the premium version turn it into a sustainable venture. It is great to receive so much positive feedback and input from instructors and students!
2) Can you name some influential figures?
As a computer scientist and electrical engineer, I believe transistor inventors William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, and Google search engine founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin deserve credit here. Many others deserve credit as well. Much of the technological and societal progress in the last century and decades has been accelerated or made possible due to their work. They serve as an inspiration for how technological innovation and transfer can improve the everyday lives of billions and move society forward.
3) What are some of your top achievements so far?
Since the platform launch in fall 2020, we have been able to support many courses and over 700 students across Europe. Based on their feedback, most instructors are very satisfied with the platform, and they are also repeated users. In 2021, we took part in a startup competition at EPFL and the University of Lausanne with over 80 competing teams. There, we perfected the business side of the project, and we were among the 6 finalists. Recently we have been admitted to the Swiss EdTech collider, which supports an ecosystem of around 100 EdTech startups.
4) What are the main challenges that you have faced so far?
Generally, a big challenge in educational technology is a high switching cost for instructors and institutions. We have been lucky to have many of our first instructors at EPFL, who are eager to improve the status-quo. Based on their feedback, the ease-of-use of our platform almost nullified the switching cost, and they are repeated users.
On the technical side, scaling functionality of a web platform to serve thousands of users is not trivial. Using modern cloud technology, we are able to meet this demand.
5) What keeps you going even in hard times?
Next to a passion for working on interesting and valuable things, I really appreciate the positive feedback from users and promising usage statistics of the platform. Additionally, the welcoming research and entrepreneurial communities at EPFL and beyond are a great support system and provide a way to give back as well.
6) How do you define success?
Adding or keeping value, health and happiness.
7) What are the top three tips you can give to someone who wants to enter the world of entrepreneurship?
In my opinion, entrepreneurship should not be a goal in itself, but rather a byproduct of creating a taste for developing new things that add value and validating them. Every now and then one gets ideas on how to solve problems in the world around us. Write these ideas down, so you have a place to store and revisit them, while freeing up your mind for new things.
The next step is to validate whether your intuition is shared by people who experience a particular problem. This can be done by talking to them, or more powerfully, by creating a small prototype that solves this problem. Make sure to minimally invest time and money in a prototype, e.g., a web form for ordering food where you do things manually behind the scenes.
Finally, trash negatively validated (sub)ideas and move on.
8) Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I can keep working on interesting and valuable projects.
This EPFLinnovators project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 754354.