When scientists start doing business

Awards rain down on Xavier Duportet. Designated by the magazine this year Forbes as one of the 30 most promising Europeans under 30 in health, he received the Hope for Leadership award last year and was voted French Innovator of the Year in 2015 by the MIT Technology Review. Why does this 29-year-old biology doctor see him in the spotlight?

Together with his partner David Bikard, also a researcher at the Pasteur Institute, they promised to “change the world for our children” with intelligent antibiotics, which can eliminate bacteria and kill only the bad. Their product, if successful, will be revolutionary. Meanwhile, Eligo Bioscience, the start-up they launched to support this project, has already raised 2 million euros and is preparing to raise 12 more this year.

High-tech nuggets

The two young men are part of a new generation of scientists. No more PhD students in white coats lurking in the back of their lab. Today, researchers dream of being at the head of their company. Since the Allègre law of 1999 authorizing them to set up a company, a hundred of them take the plunge every year. A figure deemed “disappointing” by Jean-Luc Beylat (president of Nokia Bell Labs France) and Pierre Tambourin (general director of Genopole), authors of a report on the matter.

Yet the researchers who come out this way create real gold nuggets, as they take risks and explore areas where industrialists don’t go. And above all, they introduce real technological breakthroughs when classic start-ups often settle for recycling worn-out activities in dematerialized form.

>> To also read: 10 French companies tackling major (and minor) diseases too

Patents galore

Mickael Tanter, a physicist working in a gray matter environment, at the Langevin Institute of ESPCI ParisTech, of which he is deputy director, has filed more than 40 patents during his career. Several have led to companies being responsible for its operation.

These include Supersonic Imagine, which markets the Aixplorer, an ultra-fast ultrasound scanner that enables a much more reliable diagnosis of cancer, or Cardiawave, which is developing a medical device for the treatment of aortic stenosis, a heart disease. “To develop such products,” he emphasizes, “you have to bridge the gap between the skills of my discipline, physics, and those of other players working in medicine, mathematics, etc. Real innovations arise from the confrontation between these different fields.”

>> To also read: Biotech and medtech, the most promising French players


However, being surrounded by brilliant minds and developing a product at the cutting edge of innovation is not enough to ensure the success of a start-up. “It’s just the beginning of the story. Going from technology to finished product is the most difficult step. For two or three months, we support creators and help them come up with marketable solutions by confronting them with potential users,” said Sophie Pellat, director of co-foundations at IT Translation, an investment fund founded by Inria and Bpifrance. management).

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Among the thirty start-ups she follows, all of which stem from research, Niland (raised EUR 420,000). Launched in 2013 by three IRCAM researchers, the company develops search engines for music search and discovery based on an artificial intelligence system. Damien Tardieu, one of the co-founders, measures the progress made thanks to this support. “My job has changed: I learned to understand customer expectations, adjust the product and price accordingly, but also create a company culture.”

>> To also read: How our brains and engineers win over global companies

business plan

To put on his new management attire, Pascal Viel, researcher at CEA and co-founder of Ajelis (Innovative Methods for Wastewater Treatment), attended the HEC Challenge+ training aimed at makers of high-tech companies. “I have discovered how to draw up a business plan, he testifies. And my attitude has also evolved: in the beginning I was chatty and quick to talk about my work, I no longer publish my results and remain discreet so as not to stir up competition or reveal secrets.

Latest assets researchers can count on: government support and complementarity between public and private. In 2015, the State spent 226 million euros to increase the economic benefits of public research.

>> To also read: These 21 innovations that are shaking up the medicine of the future

The start-up GLOphotonics (lasers and fiber optics) was able to benefit from this. Founded by two researchers from XLim, a CNRS laboratory and the University of Limoges, it won 900,000 euros in funding last year, part of which is linked to a project in which it is associated with Thales Avionics. “The company has taken advantage of the university’s links with industrialists to respond to several tenders and win some of them,” confides Frédéric Gérôme, one of the co-founders. Opportunities that will also enable her to receive a shower of awards.

Xavier Duportet, Doctor of Biology, Founder of Eligo Bioscience

Xavier Duportet (3rd from left). – Patrick ALLARD/REA

Originally, his start-up was a company that grew out of Rockefeller University in New York, where he met his partner. A graduate of MIT and Inria, he also launched the Hello Tomorrow Challenge, a series of conferences where scientists, engineers and programmers can meet: an incentive to create start-ups!

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Microbiologist, Co-Founder of CRISPR Therapeutics

© Peter Steffen/DPA/AFP

“Co-discoverer” with Jennifer Doudna, of DNA scissors for cutting defective DNA sequences, could one day receive the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, CRISPR Therapeutics, the company she co-founded with four other researchers, has raised $127 million on the US Nasdaq.


start-ups founded by CNRS researchers since 1999.

companies founded by scientists between 2000 and 2015, an average of 90 per year.

of the 1,810 companies awarded in the Bpifrance i-Lab competition since 1999, are linked to public inquiry.

of the 1,810 companies awarded in the Bpifrance i-Lab competition since 1999, are linked to public inquiry.

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