Doing the right choice and getting started
After graduating with a Master’s degree in IT & Artificial Intelligence, Baptiste Fosty began his career with Inria at the Sophia Antipolis research centre. When his post-study placement came to an end, he had the choice between pursuing a PhD or starting out as an engineer. But he had already been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and chose to become an engineer.
“I had wanted to become an entrepreneur as an IT student, which is another reason why I didn’t really want to continue in academia. I spent three years as an engineer as part of the STARS research team directed by François Brémond. During those three years I contributed towards the development of technology based around a video camera with motion recognition. Inria’s start-up support convinced me to try my hand at entrepreneurship.”
From concept to project: the obstacles and challenges that stood in his way
The start-up was launched in 2017, after two years spent maturing within Inria. It was during this period that Baptiste Fosty met Mélaine Gautier, his future associate, who was working as an engineer within Biocore, another Inria research team. The two were allocated financial, material and human resources to help get their project off the ground, in addition to local entrepreneurial support from Inria - the sort of highly favourable conditions that not all budding entrepreneurs have access to. But developing a spirit of entrepreneurship and supporting deep-tech start-ups have always been two of the Institute’s priorities.
One of the most important moments in the story of these young entrepreneurs came when they decided to take action and actually create their start-up. For Baptiste Fosty, this crucial stage lasted nearly 8 months. Another key moment was when the first funding was obtained within the start-up ecosystem, reassuring the two founders that they had been right to believe in their project.
Setting up the company was a very important step. That was us breaking away from Inria, cutting the cord and becoming an entity in our own right. Then the initial external funding started coming in. This showed that people had faith in us and what we wanted to do, and that they also believed in our project.
This initial funding enabled Ekinnox to begin recruiting, which was another key step for Baptiste Fosty, who discovered that he didn’t just need to know how to manage a team, but that he also had to revise his working methods.
“When you become an employer, that also changes things, because you need to start actually managing. The way in which you work changes as well. When you start out with two of you and you move to four, you have to start adapting your tools and working methods.”
What Fosty achieved during these early stages was to find a way of developing a product “that interested companies, who would be ready to pay for it and who would then buy it and use it. This is a really important step in the start-up process.”
Fosty realised that product certification (CE marking) was a key step in marketing his solution.
“Making our product a Medical Device was a strategic decision, not only in terms of how it is used in diagnostic support - which is what we provide our clients, healthcare institutions - but also because that gave us a certain competitive advantage: this is a sizeable barrier to entry for our potential competitors. It took around 8 months for us to get CE marking, having recruited someone on what was essentially a full-time basis. The whole team was involved, plus consultants as well. The total cost was estimated at €150k. Knowing that control audits have to be carried out each year, we saw certification as an investment for the company.”
But technical execution of a project on its own is not enough: you have to be able to handle all of the challenges of an entrepreneurial project at the same time:
“On top of certification, in a broader sense, when you’re an entrepreneur, you have to accept that things move much more slowly than you might have initially hoped. When the project was launched, we wanted to do movement analysis (not just walking analysis), so as to be able to target physiotherapists working in their own private practices as well. However, given the differences between the products and markets, this goal was pushed back, and we focused instead on walking analysis in order to develop a product and get it on the market quicker. The biggest challenge for an entrepreneur is staying focused, making the right choice when it comes to your very first product and your first market, and having a good understanding of it (and we still have a lot to learn about this market). But it’s especially important to target something as quickly as possible. In start-ups, cash is king, and it doesn’t grow on trees.”
Emerging from the shadows and carving a niche
The various pitch competitions aimed at start-ups provide a way of establishing a reputation and developing a level of visibility. It is once you have a reputation that the offers start coming in: events, trade shows, press interviews, etc.
What strategy did Ekinnox adopt in order to benefit from this while staying focused on the development of the company?
“My strategy for responding to these offers was to assess them based on 3 criteria: 1) what the benefits were, 2) how much time we would need to spend in order to respond, and how difficult it would be to compile a dossier, and 3) how likely it was that we would win, and the impact it could have on visibility.
There were competitions or challenges that we had little chance of winning, but where the reward was so high that we decided to go for it anyway. For others, the benefits weren’t only where we expected them to be. A good example of this was the I-Lab contest, which we didn’t win. This contest helped us to structure our vision more effectively, become more convincing and formalise this in the form of a business plan: in the end, the value of this was that it enabled us to gain some perspective and to develop a clearer explanation of what our project actually involved, which is particularly difficult. In 2017, we were also awarded by the Réseau entreprendre. We really got a lot out of that, including support from an experienced business executive over 2 years and access to additional funding (bank loans).”
To sum up Baptiste Fosty’s argument, while all of these events brought benefits for the entrepreneurs (visibility, notoriety, credibility, etc.), they had to stay vigilant and remain focused on their core business.
Prepare well before launching in
In order for a company to grow, this may require international expansion. But this sort of development is something you need to prepare for (knowledge of the country, business practices, regulations, the resources and steps required, etc.) Baptiste Fosty won the Netva contest in 2018 and was given the opportunity to participate in its support and immersion programme in one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the USA. What did he gain from his first experience in the States?
There were a few aspects that had an impact on him.
“I went to see rehabilitation centres and insurance companies, who have similar needs: they have the same patients and medical practices as we do (which is not the case everywhere in the world), meaning there isn’t much product adaptation required. However, we quickly realised that their approach was very different from ours. The first question a doctor in the US would ask us was, “how will I make money from this product?”. Only afterwards would they ask “how will this help me treat patients better?”. As we hadn’t really looked into that, they would tell us, “OK, thanks for your time: come back when you know how I can make money”.
The entrepreneurial culture in the USA is very different from ours in France. There’s a lot of funding, but it’s very selective and you need to move extremely quickly on the market. I will always remember something an American professor said to us:
There’s something I always find surprising about the French: you’re always proud of the survival rate of your companies after 3 or 5 years and proud that 80% of them are still in business. In the States, we don't care about that! We look for only 20% of them to be in business, but for them to be huge companies. In our culture, entrepreneurs can quite easily fail and come back again without having their image tarnished.
Although he has other preoccupations, Baptiste Fosty still keeps an eye on the North American market. He recently grasped the opportunity to go back with Business France in the context of the NEXT French Healthcare programme, the aim being to develop a clearer understanding of what would need to be done to succeed in such a vast market.
Be the captain of your own (entrepreneur)ship
When asked “has his definition of an entrepreneur changed 3 years since setting up Ekinnox?”, Baptiste Fosty told us that he still has no clear definition. But he likes this image of the entrepreneur-ship as a dynamic system (with a captain, a crew and resources) which is built and which develops as it continues along its journey.
“At the start it was just me and Mélaine (Mélaine Gautier, who has since left the company). We set out on a raft and then we started rowing using planks of wood. We then reached a small island, where we picked up material and took other people on-board, and they started rowing with us. Some might want to go one way, others in a different direction, but what we want to do with our company is to push straight ahead. You learn how to manage, and to stay on course. You get people falling sick, who want to leave the raft, you get storms, you try to land somewhere to build better oars, to get a bigger boat, maybe with motors. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll make it to America!”
Ask for advice, listen to your good friends, federate around you
Starting a business is not easy, and tends to take longer than people originally plan for. Baptiste Fosty knows only too well just how much the support provided by the whole ecosystem (first Inria, then the Paca-Est incubator, Réseau Entreprendre, and the CASA business hub) helped him to push forward with the creation of Ekinnox.
Although the technology is a key part in the corporate project, it is not enough in itself to really launch a business. You need to grow and to become part of your start-up ecosystem. You need to convince people and to get them to buy into what you're doing, whether it's future clients, employees or investors. It also means that you should not hesitate to discuss with everyone around the company, and making sure you seek out advice, not just from other entrepreneurs, but also from friends and family.
But what is one piece of recommendation that Baptiste Fosty would give to a scientist hopeful of becoming CEO of their own company?
Really know what you want to do, and do it thoroughly, because staying involved in the technical side of things is difficult. But everything you learn is so rewarding that it more than makes up for the time not spent dealing with science or technology.