Philippe Renaud, the professor with 13 start-ups

Biocartis, Sensimed, Lemoptix, Mimotec or recent years these companies have attracted hundreds of millions of francs in investment and created dozens of jobs. All in all, there are 13 of them. And they all share the same origin: Microsystems Laboratory 4 of the EPFL, the Swiss Institute of Technology of Lausanne. Yet the professor who heads this lab, Philippe Renaud, is not complacent. There are no honorary degrees lining the walls of his office, just a few ironic cartoons. Renaud likes to be where you least expect him. He came to engineering by the circuitous route of physics, and to big industry via start-ups. But his scientific career also epitomises an industrial transformation in Western Switzerland. Born out of the watch-making tradition, microtechnologies are now permeating the medical, electronic or software industries. And with his start-ups, Renaud is one of the main architects of this change.

Nothing in his background would have suggested this – except maybe that he comes from the Swiss cradle of watchmaking, the canton of Neuchâtel. Yet his father did not work with the watchmaker’s magnifier but with the pruning shears of winemakers. For two centuries his family have tended their vineyard of Cortaillod, near the lake of Neuchâtel: the man is deeply rooted in his canton. But when it came to microtechnologies, he had to travel to Lausanne, California and Zürich. On the shoulders of Nobel laureates

After almost personalised studies in the small but deemed Institute of Physics at the University of Neuchâtel, Philippe Renaud moved to Lausanne to prepare his PhD at the EPFL. His teacher, Samuel Steinemann, assigned him research on Invar, a proprietary iron-nickel alloy discovered in 1910 by the man who ten years later became the first Swiss Nobel laureate in physics, Neuchâtel-born Charles-Edouard Guillaume. Invar has an extremely low coefficient of expansion – some variants do not expand at all – which is why it is widely used by watchmakers to create spirals indifferent to temperature changes.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Invar materials seemed to have their future behind them. “Most of the literature dated from before 1930,” recalls Renaud. But Steinemann was not setting Renaud off on a false trail. As a former director of research at dental implant manufacturer Straumann, Steinemann had kept many industrial contacts, which he shared with his young researcher. And then the physics of Invar, still misunderstood, became the subject of renewed interest. Renaud discovered international conferences, travels…and America.

His doctorate in hand, Renaud knew he was not cut out to be a great theoretical physicist. “I’ve always been a tinkerer. I love the atmosphere of the lab, the machinery, the electrical wires. Basically, my approach to physics is that of an engineer,” he said. Renaud hesitated: should he join Nestlé’s research centre, or the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM). In the end, he could not resist the siren call of California.

Thanks to a grant from the Swiss national fund for scientific research (FNS), he got a postdoc position in John Clarke’s lab at the University of Berkeley. In the late 1980s, the world of physics was excited by the recent Nobel prize won by Swiss and German researchers Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig. They had achieved what was thought impossible: to see and even manipulate individual atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). In the second basement of the physics building at Berkeley, Renaud began to build a STM. Totally caught up in this research – so much so that one day a firefighter found him in the building evacuated two hours earlier – Renaud began his apprenticeship in engineering. His STM never worked perfectly, but in Switzerland his new skills  opened one of the most coveted doors, that of the IBM lab in Rüschlikon, Zürich, where Rohrer worked.

With a frontier mentality acquired in California and the euphoria he had breathed in at the IBM lab, Renaud thought after two years in Zürich it was time to bring that enthusiasm back to his native Western Switzerland. In 1994, he was hired by the CSEM – only to ask six months later for a new part-time new position at the EPFL. His boss in Neuchâtel first pretended to be exasperated, but finally encouraged him. At that time MEMS, miniaturised electronic systems combining sensors, processors and communication circuitry on a single chip, were all the rage. And Renaud, who had almost no experience with silicon when he arrived at CSEM, quickly excelled in microfabrication processes. And in 1998, the EPFL decided to create a standalone Department of Microtechnology with its own building and the prospect of a clean room to produce MEMS prototypes on the campus.

“At that time, you could draw a microprocessor here and have it manufactured in Taiwan. That was not the case with sensors, where the link between design and technology is narrower,” says Renaud. He then get the backing of the EPFL to fund a clean room costing 20 million francs. That turned out to be a strategic decision, because not only is this tool shared today by 40 research groups, it became the matrix for the start-ups Renaud’s students began to create.

Since his days with Steinemann in the 1980s, Renaud has consistently visited private companies’ labs. Out of those visits came a conviction: “When industrialists come to academic laboratories, it is too often to solve the problem they have today, not to anticipate what will be in ten years. For this, new businesses must be created.”

This logic is illustrated by his relationship with the watch industry. His group had inherited a research project with Swatch to manufacture watch components in plastic or silicon, the way computer chips are made, by photolithography. “We were successful but watch makers told us they had better results with their century-old machinery,” he recalls. “Yet, Hubert Lorentz, a PhD student working on this technology, managed to interest an industrialist in the canton of Valais. Indtec was then one of the largest suppliers of watch plastic components. “It was not interested in our silicon parts but it saw the opportunity to make moulds,” explains Renaud.

On this basis, Lorentz created Mimotec in the city of Sion in November 1998. “It was an eye-opener,” says Renaud. “I realised that a new technology requires a new market and a new company. In the 1990s, the economic model of innovation changed dramatically. Large companies now prefer to acquire start-ups rather than engage in major in-house research projects.”

This proved particularly true in the biomedical sector, where the Renaud lab’s second start-up blossomed. In 1998, LemanTech Engineering was created by another collaborator, Philippe Lerch, to develop chips that can sort cell populations by analysing differences in their electrical signals. The technology was so interesting that the company was bought less than a year later by the Bernese family group Leister. It became the first brick in Leister’s diversification into microsystems, today known as Axetris.



Sensimed The Triggerfish Sensor contains stain gauge embedded in the silicone to monitor fluctuations in intraocular pressure.




The serial start-up provider

This success in the field of life sciences opened up new horizons to Renaud. He resumed his pilgrimages to private companies to the tune of one a week. Altogether this specialist in miniaturisation visited nearly 100 companies, sometimes learning a lesson in humility, as at Dumont, in Montignez in the canton of Jura, where he discovered workers able to carve medical tweezers so precise that they can grasp a single cell. But to innovate in an area as specific as biology, he needed also to learn its language. His teacher: Professor Daniel Bertrand from the Department of Physiology at the University of Geneva, described by Renaud as “a handyman genius who has a background both in biology and engineering. Very quickly, we started talking about biochips and microarrays.”

It was a collaboration that confirmed Renaud’s intuition about the potential of micro and nanotechnologies in the medical field. He multiplied research projects that often lead to the creation of a company by one of his assistants. In 2005, Marc Heukschel joined Ayanda Biosystems as CTO to develop biosensors. In 2008, Andre Mercanzini’s research on neural implants led him to launch Aleva Neurotherapeutics. Nicolas Durand’s work in microfluidics led to the creation of Abionic in 2010 to develop new allergies tests.

These companies are still in the development phase, but others have gone faster – such as Sensimed. Having managed to include a pressure sensor, a processor and a relay antenna on a contact lens, Matteo Leonardi transferred this technology from the lab to Sensimed in 2008. Since then, the company has raised over 36 million francs in investment. It is preparing to market its diagnostic lenses for glaucoma, a disease that affects 4% of the population aged over 40 years.

At the same time, Biocartis raised more than 40 million francs to develop a molecular diagnostic platform capable of making personalised medicine a reality. It is now multiplying agreements with partners and preparing to build its first factory – rapid development given that the idea of Biocartis was born in Montreux in 2003 out of a late-night bar room discussion between Renaud and Belgian entrepreneur Rudi Pauwels after the Nanotech conference.

This conference, which gathers the elite of nanotechnology every November, is another of Renaud’s babies. He has been the conference’s the scientific advisor since its beginnings, and two of his former students have applied this business model in the US where they created the Nanotech Congress and NTSI, the Nano Institute Science and Technology Institute.

Conferences are also businesses, but it is mainly technological innovations that have been the source for the Renaud labs companies – not only in watch making and life sciences but also in consumer electronics. A good example is Lemoptix. “A real surprise,” says Philippe Renaud, who explains how research on micromirrors dating back for the most part to 2000 continued to live in his lab until, three years ago, one of his collaborator had the idea of applying them to the next generation of microprojectors to be integrated into our smartphones or car dashboards.

For the winemakers’ son, this story is symptomatic. “Mother Nature tells you when the time comes to winemaking, and innovations need also time until everything is in place to take off.” This was the case with Lemoptix, which had to wait for lower prices and increased power of blue laser sources (thanks to Blu Ray) to add to the green and red laser sources that together are needed to make colour projectors. And this will also probably be the case with Renaud’s next adventure: biochips capable of replacing laboratory animals in pharmaceutical research and which will probably lead to a fourteenth start-up.




En français dans le texte

Le professeur aux 13 start-up

Neuchâtelois et physicien de formation, Philippe Renaud est devenu l’un des meilleurs experts des microtechnologies à l’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) après un passage par l’Université de la même ville puis celle de Berkeley, les laboratoires d’IBM Rüschlikon, près de Zürich et le CSEM de Neuchâtel.

Ses travaux pionniers dans le domaine des microsystèmes électroniques (MEMS) ont servi de terreau à la création d’une douzaine de start-ups pas ses collaborateurs. De Mimotec, qui a largement contribué à l’adoption du silicium par l’horlogerie haut de gamme, à Sensimed, qui est parvenue à introduire un microsystème électronique sur des lentilles de contact pour le diagnostic du glaucome, ces jeunes pousses contribuent largement au renouvellement de l’économie suisse dans des secteurs aussi variées que l’électronique grand public, avec une prometteuse nouvelle génération de micro-projecteurs (Lemoptix) ou que le diagnostic moléculaire (Biocartis). 

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