Researcher and Entrepreneur: Myth or Reality? Thoughts from a Podcast
Ecosystem 15 minutes

Researcher and Entrepreneur: Myth or Reality? Thoughts from a Podcast

Being a researcher and an entrepreneur is not incompatible, it is possible, it requires sacrifices, it requires support, it requires finding the right team!

In his podcast Thesis Antithesis Synthesis, Rony Abecidan addressed the following subject on September 1, 2023: The entrepreneurial researcher: myth or reality?

The guests for this episode are:

  • Arthur Lin – Doctoral student in Information and Communication Sciences at Gustave Eiffel University and Entrepreneur,
  • Louis Fleury – Principal at Entrepreneur First (Talent Investor),
  • Frederic Sauvage – Research Director at CNRS and Entrepreneur,
  • Hervé Lebret – Co-director of the Inria Startup Studio.

The exchange lasts 1h30 and ISS extracted the elements shared by its co-director.

Rony Abecidan: Hello and welcome to this new episode of Thesis Antithesis Synthesis

The theme of this episode is going to be the entrepreneurial researcher. Why? Because when we commit to a PhD, generally those around us think that our goal is to become a professor. So it’s true that when you want to be in academic, the PhD is a preliminary step. But this is not the only output; there are also researchers on the other hand who are moving to entrepreneurship and although it may actually seem surprising, there are be many of them. And there are even some who start companies during their thesis, so how can entrepreneurship be suitable for researchers? To what extent can a PhD prove to be an asset for initiating an entrepreneurial project? We’re going to see all of that in this episode. It is now time to move on to the presentation in a guests

Inria’s bet on entrepreneurial researchers and doctors

Rony Abecidan: What is INRIA and what is Inria start-up studio?

Hervé Lebret: Inria is the National Research Institute in Digital Sciences today, and IA stood for “informatics and automatics”; it is a 50-year old research center which is located in 9 locations in France. A mini CNRS specialized in IT.

Inria Startup Studio [ISS] is a unit that was created 4 years ago as a continuation of support for entrepreneurship and technology transfer [within the institute]. Frédéric said it well earlier, there is something other than entrepreneurship in the valorization of research assets. ISS was created 4 years ago with a somewhat crazy ambition, to support up to 100 digital start-up projects per year. We are far from it, we are around thirty.

[ISS works] for Inria researchers, for University researchers, private sector researchers, for non-researchers with the idea of helping people before they create start-ups in the digital and deeptech field , therefore with a notion of deep technology even if it is very difficult to define [deeptech].

In practice, how does this incubator that is Inria Startup Studio support young researchers, and not necessarily researchers ultimately, in business creation?

ISS tries to provide everything an entrepreneur needs. The first thing is money: if you have to become unemployed to get started, it’s not necessarily comfortable so we pay two people full-time per project with an INRIA salary for one year. One year is super short, but it’s also super good. It’s not clear that there are many programs that can afford to do this. So we pay up to two people per project.

Inria houses them in one of the 9 Inria centers, geography is diverse in France and we support them with four people in the national program and at least one person per center. There are around fifteen people who can support the projects. I’m not going to define support, I think it’s a bit systematic when it comes to entrepreneurship.

And twe have training, workshops, camps [similar to summer schools]. We have a multitude of events, like Find Your Cofounder, in partnership with Matrice. We participate to Vivatech, Hello Tomorrow, Phd Talent Fair, which allow our entrepreneurs to network, to help them launch the project. Support in multiple dimensions.

In the projects you support, is there necessarily an Inria researcher?

No. What we require is that there be a person who masters technology. We will not take someone who has a business vision who would come looking for a researcher. From the start of the project, there is a person who masters the vision of technological development and even more than the vision, the leader has mastery of technological development to make a product.

Your guests have well described (and this is the advantage of being interviewed last) the difficulty of this change of reference between being a researcher and being an entrepreneur. I tend to say that you can be a researcher then an entrepreneur then a researcher but it’s not easy to be both at the same time because in fact it takes 150% of your time [in each activity ]. If there is one thing in common between the two fields, it is that you have to be passionate, you have to be stubborn. I’ve heard it, you have to do things through to the end, so do both things at the same time, and Arthur said it a little: selling and doing research is complicated. Moreover, we require our sentrepreneurs to be 100% involved in the project.

So if a permanent researcher wants to join the startup studio, she or he will take a break from her or his research and for a year, s/he will work on Her/his start-up project. We have these specificities which are important: taking people who are very technically competent, not necessarily permanent researchers, not necessarily doctoral students, but also young engineers just out of school in the hope of [building] fabulous things. Ultimately Facebook, well Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates did not have a PhD and they created technology companies. We clearly see that we need a diversity of people that we will help.

And then the second person, since we are paying up to 2 people, may be more business oriented or perhaps someone who will be a technical partner of the entrepreneur, but we necessarily have a technical entrepreneur.

So how many startups have you launched so far?

We have a committee that selected 115 projects. You can only create the startup at the end of the program which lasts one year. There are 77 projects (from memory) which are finished out of the 115 selected, and 29 startups created; we therefore have a conversion rate of 40%, which is not so bad if we think that we are taking people who have an idea after their thesis. This is the situation today. And in addition, 5 startups have raised more than 500,000 Euros from private investors.

Do you have an idea of how many doctors are in these projects?

So I opened a file earlier when I heard the question that was asked. I would say we have 75% doctors in our program. I said 115 projects, we actually have more than 170 people, we don’t always have two people per project and out of the 170 people, I would say we have more than 75%; so from doctor, ex-doctor because we have permanent researchers, we have 55-year old people in the program. And people who are 20-year old. We didn’t necessarily check that people who came from outside, from the private sector, had a PhD, because what we’re looking for are skills. On the other hand, I know that in the projects that come out of Inria or the university, 90% of them are doctors.

Yes, but that’s a bit biased!

Obviously ! We are a program in a research institute so there is this initial bias. But we dare going out too!

But you see at Entrepreneurs First they had a statistic that looked like 70%, it ‘s similar.


Inria has supported entrepreneurship for decades, as illustrated in this book of testimonials published in 2015.
Inria has supported entrepreneurship for decades,
as illustrated in this book of testimonials published in 2015.

Some parallels between research and entrepreneurship

So, in the different companies that have been launched, do you observe particular skills that help researchers to stand out a little in entrepreneurship?

I like the idea that has been mentioned several times that there is a change of reference. Frédéric said it, a researcher is passionate about knowledge. An entrepreneur thinks first of selling a product. A researcher is passionate about technology and science; an entrepreneur by the product. A researcher works in years and an entrepreneur in weeks. A researcher is passionate about perfection, he cannot make a mistake in his research otherwise his paper is worthless whereas an entrepreneur is “good enough”, if he has something that works 80%, he has already produced so the benchmarks are not the same.

Now I think, and I haven’t said it before, but I come with an Anglo-Saxon culture. I spent 2 years in the United States and I saw the difference between the United States and Europe, not just France and we can clearly see that what makes a quality researcher or entrepreneur , it is stubbornness and it is the ability to accept uncertainty because in both cases you are never sure of obtaining results. These qualities are essential in both entrepreneurship and research and we find them constantly in both. Now in the way it plays out in careers, it’s not exactly the same thing. We cannot say that a good researcher makes a good entrepreneur or a good entrepreneur makes a good researcher, but there are common qualities.

So there are a lot of parallels between the two but I understand what you mean, we can’t make a cause and effect link.

There are very good researchers who make very bad entrepreneurs but also very good entrepreneurs. I spoke above about Marc Zurckerberg and Bill Gates [who could perhaps have been very good researchers, but they stopped at the Bachelor] but take Google, they were two doctoral students, they had done excellent research and they have become remarkable entrepreneurs. The founder of nVidia who becomes the new star of technology, a new GAFA, was a student who had just completed a master’s degree at Stanford [after a few years of professional experience]. It should be noted that these qualities are exceptional; we are not dealing with Gaussian statistics. In all cases, we are dealing with extraordinary characters.

We Do Low and Alias (aka Olympe), examples of Inria projects

Two or three examples of startups that you have incubated at Inria?

Earlier, I heard about a young woman who had impressed one of the speakers. We had a startup in Rennes called Wedolow (for the record, it changed names 4 times), the founder is called Justine Bonnot, she did her PhD at INSA, in connection with Inria. She started in verification and code optimization for embedded systems. I am not allowed to say how much money she raised, but I believe it was several hundred thousand euros and it started with a research idea. If you go to the site where we have the entire portfolio, you will see that it is quite impressive. It’s a nice example of a young woman, there aren’t many, we complain about that, there aren’t enough women in entrepreneurship or in science for that matter. I like to highlight her, it’s a good example.

We had another example of someone who had a start-up with the CNRS, his name is Benoît Morisset, he had sold his start-up to Apple if I’m not mistaken; he came back to see us, he worked with a researcher called Pierre Alliez, in image processing in the center of Sophia Antipolis and we supported him for a year. He has raised 3 million euros with BPIFrance and Innovacom, a startup called AIverse.

The last example that I really like are people trying to manage GDPR: Mehdi Medjaoui and François-Xavier Cao. François-Xavier Cao is a doctoral student in law; there are not doctoral students in science only. Mehdi Medjaoui is someone who has an incredible energy. The startup is called Alias [also Code is Law], it raised around 3 million with the Elaia fund and BPIFrance. The story was so exceptional that they only spent 6 months with us and then after 6 months, they realized that they were ready to create the startup and raise money so they left our program. Here are three examples among the 29 start-ups that were created.

Just one last question. Do you observe difficulties encountered by all entrepreneurs who go through the startup studio, can you draw conclusions on the main difficulties encountered by entrepreneurs?

There are many. I was thinking about the question you asked. I think the first is simply cultural. I talked about Anglo-Saxon culture. Doing entrepreneurship in the United States is a given, there are so many references, there are so many role models, it’s not a problem. We clearly feel in France and in research institutes that becoming an entrepreneur, despite everything Frédéric said, is still a bit complicated, they look at you a little sideways. There is already this idea: am I accepted? Culturally, there is something that is still a little complicated.

The law, even if it favors business creation, is still a little complicated. I can tell you that I tried to understand the Pacte law which is an evolution of the law of the 80s. It is very complicated for a researcher to say, “do I” as Fréderic said earlier, “ask for Concours Scientifique or do I go to the company to work full time.” The choices are not that simple.

So there are cultural aspects, there are legal aspects and then, obviously, there’s money. Investors are still quite conservative in France so they sometimes have difficulty taking risks when we are talking about venture capital (“capital-rsique” in French). The word “risk” isn’t necessarily there so it’s difficult to find the money. BPIFrance helps a lot but rather in what we call matching, through leverage but it is not necessarily considerable sums and therefore there is always this difficulty in finding money.

And also find a team, recruit people who want to take risks with you. But I want to say that money and talent go hand in hand.

Some advice to future entrepreneurs

Yes it’s clear. Thank you very much for your interesting answers. Perhaps we can quickly conclude the episode with each person’s advice for people who would like to start entrepreneurship and who come from a research background?

I want to say that you have to be passionate to do a start-up as well as to do research. I think anyway that the people who do research are passionate, so that’s the first element.

If you have a little desire to explore this world, you should not hesitate to explore it because in any case, from the moment you are doing the research, and you have a doctorate , the world is open, you find work quite easily, in any case today very easily, perhaps more easily than 10 years ago.

So if you have this desire, as I think Louis said, there are many structures, there is ours but there are many others, I am not going to make a specific call! I think that all the structures are doing a good job. You have to be careful not to always listen to advice because it is sometimes toxic. I also say it, you shouldn’t be afraid to follow your intuition.

You have to listen to people’s advice because you don’t know everything and you can learn things; and then go for it because anyway, you don’t waste a lot of time learning so many things in a pretty incredible way.

[A comment of Frédéric Sauvage]

I have three. I would tend to say first of all, believe in your project. You have to believe in your project to be able to convince. Second thing is the team. It’s super important and so if I had any advice at this level: technology is one thing, the development plan is another, but you need the team that goes with it.

And the third piece of advice is to have strong nerves because in fact here, I am completely in line with what was said by Hervé, you have to be passionate about your technical development, you have to have strong nerves because it’s not always simple, nothing is won easily, nothing is granted and in fact the vision of a start-up, of its life on the scale of a few months (that’s the scale of time), sometimes we have ups, sometimes we have downs, and so you have to have very strong nerves.

But the finality of all this in fact, a little to close what I think, is that in the end what could be more beautiful than to see these intellectual elements, tomorrow, integrated into a product and which is also a beneficial product to the society. It’s just magnificent so if you believe in it, you have to go there.

With these beautiful words we will conclude the episode. I hope you have understood that being a researcher and an entrepreneur is not incompatible, it is possible, it requires sacrifices, it requires support, it requires finding the right team.

The full interview (in French) is available on Rony Abecidan’s podcast.

Publication date: 19/12/2023

Tags: Ecosystem Founder Researcher Startup

Hervé Lebret

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