EpiLAB offers an all-purpose screening test for tuberculosis. In this interview, Clément Dubois and Maurice Lubetzki, its co-founders, look back on their 6-month support within the class #12 of the Polytechnique incubator (X-Up) managed by Roberta Camera, and operated by Caroline Laroche-Renaud and David Fletcher, mentors of the INSKIP entrepreneurship firm.
By way of introduction, can you present the program and the typical path that startups go through ?
Roberta: The X-Up pathway is the Ecole Polytechnique's incubation program for early stage Deeptech startups. The goal is to incubate more and more projects that come out of scientific research and want to go to market. We are going to detect projects that have a concrete market perspective and that have already had some experience with their offer. We work on the various aspects of business creation by offering a highly structured training and support program, with the help of INSKIP and experts. We also make available to startups our vast prototyping space, multi-pole expertise for the creation and support of technology. This 6-month program answers all the questions startups have about legal, accounting, financial, marketing and communication issues.Alumni from the Ecole Polytechnique and other schools of the Institut Polytechnique de Paris are mentors. They help startups with their needs, ranging from guidance on strategy, to making contacts in the target market, to specific advice, such as on intellectual property. This year, for the first time, startups had the opportunity to choose their mentors themselves through an online speed dating day, which was very much appreciated. At the end of the program, a Demo Day is organized in Paris with the investors for the startups to present their pitch.
David: During the course, Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs) have 3 roles: Convey keys on how to successfully complete an entrepreneurial project.See how these keys translate to specific projectsTo help projects move forward by reflecting with entrepreneurs, understanding their sticking points, verbalizing their concerns or issues, and getting them out of their comfort zone
How many startups have been supported ?
Roberta: The incubator was born in 2015 and until today we have accompanied 58 startups. We have two promos per year with a maximum of 9 projects per promo.
Has the program evolved in this new class ?
David: This year, there was a challenge related to distance learning, to succeed in creating a relationship of trust at a distance. In addition, from one class to the next, the content changes, for example, at what point do we introduce what notion? We adapt according to the needs of the entrepreneurs and the nature of their projects.
Roberta: This year, we strengthened the new program with Caroline and David, working in sprints and creating training on new topics. We have increased the number of workshops by 50% compared to last year, and we are trying to make the workshops more focused and pragmatic. We also improved our mentoring program, giving each start-up the possibility to choose up to three mentors dedicated to their project, in addition to the experts provided by the incubator.
Maurice: Doing short workshops is very important. It's hard for entrepreneurs to sit for 2 hours!
Roberta: It was hard to do online workshops this year. I am in contact and aligned with the American incubators, with the idea of doing shorter, interactive workshops.
If we go back to the beginning of Maurice and Clément's accompaniment, where did the project come from and what were your expectations when you joined the program?
Clément: We wanted to commercialize technologies developed by researchers. In March 2020, we got in touch with Elodie and Muriel, our co-founders. We worked on this project for a few months with Maurice, during the first confinement. Then, we saw the incubator's call for projects, the 9-point video, and we found it great because it was exactly the points on which we needed support: prototyping our product, validating our vision, etc. We wanted to know what to do and what not to do, and have resources. So we applied and exchanged several times with the incubator before being selected.At the end of the sandbox (pre-incubation period), we came out with a deck and a clearer vision.
Compared to your expectations on the program, what was different in the end? Maurice: When we set foot in Polytechnique, we didn't have any expectations, but we knew that at X, there were good research laboratories to help us with the product. We then became aware of something we didn't know, the importance of communicating well about our project, which we wouldn't have done well otherwise. Our value proposition is to treat tuberculosis, and therefore to save lives. Being more specific and impactful in a shorter period of time allows people to better understand and trust more quickly, which is fundamental in our ecosystem. The program allowed us to get to the level of discourse we have today, to be able to pitch in 30 seconds, 5 minutes, or 20 minutes.
What were the main stages of support that you went through ?
Maurice: Here are the main steps:The beginning was decorated with INSKIP and Polytechnique. We did everything to get our patent license.Then, we set up our team.Then we worked on our roadmap for 6 months, 1 year and 3 years.Then we thought about the product: do we do it with our own resources, or do we outsource it. We chose to outsource very quickly. We realized that we needed to hire someone to use all of X's resources. We did our first recruitment process for an engineer. Then, we developed our 3-year financing strategy.For that, we exchanged with Caroline, by loops, on our roadmap, and she made our choices evolve. We then had a product engineer, a well thought-out partnership with INSERM, a very clear business plan and a fundraising strategy that is now coming to an end. In our weekly exchanges, Caroline was surgically present to tell us "do this in such and such a way", "discuss with such and such a person", and so on. It was the only time we questioned ourselves in front of a third person. We would take stock of exactly what we had left to do, and why we had to do it now rather than in 6 months.
Roberta and David, with your outside view, what are the actions that allowed the project to move forward ?
Roberta: Maurice and Clement's ability to listen has allowed them to follow the advice of their mentors. But what really sets the EpiLAB team apart is their great ability to execute and their passion for entrepreneurship. In a very short period of time, Maurice and Clément were able to convince key players in their ecosystem to believe in and support their project. The team's credibility was evident from my first meeting with Maurice and Clément, and that is how their very ambitious project was selected for the École Polytechnique incubation program.The selection process at X-up is very tough, there are three selection phases for each class: based on the application, the pitch and the two-week pre-incubation period known as the "sandbox. This is a period during which entrepreneurs have the opportunity to challenge and advance their project with the help of various experts. At the end of this period, each project is presented to a final committee to make a final selection. This year, we received about 100 applications for a total of 9 places available and only 7 projects were selected.
David: One step that Maurice and Clement didn't talk about that illustrates why it worked so well is their discovery of the market. They are entering the medical device market. It's a sprawling, complicated and opaque market, which they've come to know by meeting people. They are both very good listeners and good doers. They met "Mr. and Mrs. tuberculosis" very quickly. This is the first key to their progress, which has been impressive over the last few months.
Maurice: Thank you! With Clément, we work very well on trust. When someone has more experience than us, we listen to them. This allowed us not to make too many mistakes. We wanted to know what we should do. For example, we were wondering about the choice of our last investor. Caroline challenged us so much every two weeks, on who should enter our company and when, that we ended up integrating this way of thinking by questioning. These questions are very strategic: we can multiply EpiLAB's valuation by 2 at the next round of financing if we choose our round of financing well.
What is the role of EiR (Entrepreneurs in Residence) in your opinion? How would you define it, and what has it brought you?
Clement: The EiR has this hindsight that we, who are fully involved in the project, do not have. Caroline used to tell us to stop focusing on something when it wasn't necessary, or on the contrary, to go deeper into an axis. I think the pillars of EiR are hindsight and experience. The EiR knows the stakes of the project, he sees its evolution by phase of 2 to 3 weeks, and thus he reminds us what we talked about in the previous point. This has allowed us to go much faster and much further.
Maurice: There is a real collaboration between INSKIP and X. We could not have done what we did with INSKIP alone. For example, X allowed us to have two interns. That saved us an incredible amount of time. It allowed us to clarify things and focus on what's important.
Roberta: Interns should be dedicated to missions for startups, this is a point I would like to deepen in the program. This year, we worked with INSKIP not as a supplier but as a partner: we were coordinated on all subjects. We had INSKIP's support on the EiR part but also on the strategy, because they know the startup support structures very well thanks to their corporate clients. For example, we thought about the structuring of the program because we were in a period of reorganization. We also thought about the different sprints, and INSKIP's role was very beneficial thanks to its experience with other incubators.
David: We are generalists on the program. We don't do a deep dive on the development of a prototype in a Fablab. We try to accompany the program in its entirety, hence these discussions with Roberta. We want it to make as much sense as possible, to be as useful as possible for the entrepreneurs, to serve the objectives of X and the program.
We've talked a lot about your successes and where you are now. If you go back to where you were when you started, are there things that you think now that you would do differently? Do you have a story about that?
Clement: For me, the main thing was the fundraising: the search for funds, our relationship with the Business Angels, the way we presented ourselves. We didn't know who we were talking to and what the Business Angels, the VCs and the big groups were expecting. One of our first negotiations was before X: we negotiated x% commission to be able to use the patent. Maybe today we would do it differently and offer them a little less.
What was your best, or most surprising, moment during this coaching?
Clément: Very clearly, when we were selected, it was a very good moment. After all the discussions, we understood that it was hard to get into the incubator. Another very good moment is recent, when we secured our fundraising.
Maurice: One of my best moments of the incubation is when we met one of our mentors. I realized the potential that this represented. Honestly I've never seen that in my life, the people he has lunch with are really interesting. It was great because it saved us a lot of time. He took us seriously and people took us seriously. We created a relationship of trust with him.
Clement: I think our first recruitment was one of the best moments. When our first intern joined the team, we became a team of three. We thought that was great as entrepreneurs and as a company. It really pushed us forward.
Roberta: Honestly, for me, the best moment of the accompaniment with EpiLAB is every Monday during the weekly objective point of X-Up which allows us to make the assessment with our start-ups on the past week and to plan the activities of the current week. Indeed, Clément and Maurice always give us good news: their prototype has progressed, they have secured funds, etc. It's always very stimulating to work with them because they move forward very quickly and with great enthusiasm!
David: I like the sandbox. You come in and you don't know the startups. You wonder if it's going to take and if you're going to bring something to them, because they all come with different levels of maturity. Usually, they've already thought about their market, their value proposition, etc. When you realize that there are still some big topics to work on and that this relationship catches on, it's pretty cool. And the startups talk to each other. Something is created at that moment. Of course, at the end, when you know the projects at the beginning, when you have seen the first presentations, the first pitches, it's nice to see the evolution.
Could you define this support in a few words?
Clement: The right advice, at the right time. We're going to tell you the good and bad practices. That's what we were looking for. The toolkit to go further and not make the classic mistakes.
Maurice: X-Up and INSKIP, the Swiss Army knife of the 2020 confined entrepreneur! Efficiency, because we managed to have the elements we needed at the right time. Flexibility, because some weeks I couldn't do all the things X-Up asked me to do and they understood that we were under pressure and gave us free rein.
Roberta: From my side, it was an exciting experience. Helping our startups to progress concretely every day is what excites me. Moreover, X-Up's goal is to advance cutting-edge technological projects that aim to contribute to the improvement of French society and this is really what motivates my work every day.
David: The collaboration with X-Up and Epilab has been a success. As for INSKIP, we're starting a new class, so we're very happy to continue working on deep-tech subjects and with such a rich ecosystem. Epilab is also coming back! So we're transforming this first attempt and we're continuing to improve.