“Our duty at EPFL is to give our students a future”
Philippe Renaud recently gave his honorary lecture after nearly 30 years as the head of EPFL’s Microsystems Laboratory 4. We spoke with this iconic figure of microengineering research about his long career at our School.
Although he’s now retired, we caught up with Philippe Renaud on the EPFL campus during a break between meetings at Innovation Park. Many new businesses were spun off from his research lab and he remains in close contact with EPFL’s startup ecosystem. “I want to share my experience with those in charge of innovation at the School,” says Renaud. “The good thing is that now, I get to manage my own calendar!”
Renaud studied physics at the University of Neuchâtel, in his hometown, and earned a PhD from the University of Lausanne. He spent a year as a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, before taking up a position at IBM’s research center in Zurich and then at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel. He joined EPFL as an assistant professor in 1993, founding the research lab he went on to manage for nearly three decades.
It would’ve been problematic for me to teach engineers without knowing exactly what they’d be doing after graduating.
A physicist among engineers
Despite training as a physicist, Renaud – always eager to try something new – didn’t shy away from the opportunity to teach at EPFL’s School of Engineering. He had already gotten a taste of engineering from his stint at CSEM. “I saw silicon for the first time just a year before coming to EPFL,” he says. “Making the switch from physics to engineering wasn’t easy – I spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what the field is all about.” Renaud made a point of visiting one local company a week to understand how engineering is applied in the business world.
Driving microsystems research at EPFL
When Renaud first started at EPFL, microsystems research was still focused primarily on robotics and automation. But the School saw there was considerable potential in microtechnology and made this emerging field a priority. “I came to EPFL just as the School got a new president, Jean-Claude Badoux, who identified microengineering and communication systems as two focus areas for the School’s growth,” says Renaud. “Badoux decided to dedicate a building then under construction to microengineering.”
Renaud played a pivotal role in the expansion of microtechnology research at EPFL. He convinced the School’s management to build the Center of MicroNanoTechnology in the microengineering building. The Center comprises 1,400 m² of clean rooms – sterilized rooms free of airborne particles and microorganisms, used to fabricate micro- and nano-scale devices – along with 125 pieces of research equipment. Today the Center has hundreds of users.
Go radical or go home
Renaud was always clear about his vision for research: the technology developed at his lab had to be innovative – even radical. “I was always upfront about that when I hired PhD students,” he says. “I explained that we sometimes explore off-the-wall ideas with no guarantee that they’ll lead to a workable technology.” For instance, he believes that optimization, or the process of continually improving existing technology, is something best suited to corporate R&D and is of marginal interest to academic researchers. “I was very lucky at EPFL, in that nobody ever tried to tell me what I was doing was too outlandish or random,” says Renaud. “This kind of research freedom is exceptional.” He initially studied microsensor technology, but then discovered it has considerable synergies with biomedicine. This prompted him to move into associated fields like microfluidics, opening up a host of important applications in cell manipulation and research.
A breeding ground for startups
At his honorary lecture, Renaud was introduced as “the man behind 25 startups.” That’s because his PhD graduates have founded a surprisingly large number of new companies. But Renaud warns against getting carried away. “The number of new startups isn’t really a good measure of success,” he says. “It’s a tempting metric to use because it’s easy to calculate, but very few of those startups ultimately make it. We must remember that many EPFL graduates take jobs in the business world, in some cases spearheading innovation at large companies where thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue are at stake – but that’s harder to quantify.”
Renaud believes that his lab’s entrepreneurial success came primarily from the type of PhD students he worked with. “I never started a research project with the goal of creating a company,” he says. “That’s the best way not to innovate! Rather, I focused on hiring people who were independent, creative and eager to make an impact beyond their thesis.”
An attentive teacher
Starting with the first class he gave at EPFL, on sensors, Renaud always sought to pique his students’ curiosity and illustrate how the theory they’d been learning since their Bachelor’s studies could be applied in the real world. He believes teaching is fundamental at EPFL. “Generally, when you start as a new professor, you view research as your main job and teaching as secondary,” he explains. “But as you get more teaching experience, you realize your primary duty at EPFL is to train the next generation of engineers and give your students a future.” This realization proved extremely motivating for him, but it also threw up challenges. “Since research projects age pretty quickly, what you really leave behind when you retire from EPFL is the influence you had on people,” he says. “I would never feel more defeated than when I was grading exam papers and saw that a student hadn’t understood a key element of the subject matter.”
Renaud says he feels ready for retirement, although he’s still not sure what he’ll do with his free time. “Maybe I’ll take up gardening,” he says. “Although since that hasn’t happened yet, chances are it won’t!”