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Start-up - OCamlPro


Interview with Fabrice Le Fessant

OCamlPro offers services and tools to enable the rapid development of high quality software. Its expertise in OCaml empowers this start-up to develop its activity in all areas where code correction, high availability and security are of major importance. The OCaml programming language, distributed as free software by Inria, is the fruit of 25 years of research and development.

Fabrice Le Fessant, one of the founders of OCamlPro and scientific advisor to the company, spoke to us about its creation... 

How did you come to be part of Inria?

I did my first internship with Inria when I was a student at the Ecole Polytechnique. I have only left the institute once since—after my PhD, I spent a one-year post-doc at Microsoft Research Cambridge (UK). After working for sometime on distributed systems, mostly with Anne-Marie Kermarrec, I recently came back to "my first love", programming languages, and OCaml in particular. Having used it successfully in a wide range of areas, I felt sure that this language deserved to be better known and more widely used.


What made you decide to create OCamlPro?

In 2007, I first took part in the creation of a company, MoveNPlay, with Anh-Tuan Gai and Laurent Viennot. This experience gave me an insight into how to transfert  technologies to the industry. I have always thought that an institute such as Inria only really serves a purpose if the fruit of its research can be put to the benefit of the French economy. It's my way of giving back to the State whose public services have helped me a lot. In 2009, I was invited to visit Jane Street, a quantitative proprietary trading firm, whose software infrastructure is entirely written in OCaml. Whilst I was there, their technical director told me about their frustration with the lack of professional support for OCaml, in spite of all its qualities. I quickly decided to create a company to provide the support that is essential if OCaml is to be taken seriously by industrial players.

At the end of 2009 I spoke about this project with the technology transfer and innovation department at Inria Saclay. Agnès Guerraz and then Eric Tordjeman, who are both responsible for Innovation projects and partnerships (CPPI) were very enthusiastic and gave me a lot of help in creating OCamlPro. In addition to receiving assistance from the Digiteo foundation, an engineer for one year and advice on strategy and marketing, Jane Street agreed to fund the creation of OCamlPro as a first customer. It made it possible to launch the company in 2011 with a first engineer and myself to provide scientific support.

What link is there at the moment between OCamlPro and Inria?

With such a cutting-edge subject area the problem isn't only funding jobs, but finding the experts. The company has therefore kept close ties with Inria—it has been a member of the Caml Consortium since its creation—and with other major players in the OCaml community, such as the IRILL. The time the company spent in the Start-up centre at Inria Saclay helped to tighten these relationships. OCamlPro also funded a post-doctoral researcher at Inria and is involved with Inria in several collaborative R&D projects, such as Bware—an ANR (the French National Research Agency) project and Richelieu—a FUI project. This close working relationship helps to stimulate the OCaml community.

How is the company coming along?

Support for OCaml is a small market that we need to expand. OCamlPro has thus invested significantly in promoting OCaml. This has had very positive results, such as Try-OCaml—a website where you can learn OCaml interactively—as well as OPAM—a package manager that greatly simplifies installing OCaml, and TypeRex a toolbox for developing in OCaml. To maximise the impact, all of these products are free software, and OCamlPro plays an active role in leading the community, along with OCamllabs—a laboratory that Jane Street is funding in Cambridge. At the same time, the company is diversifying by providing tools for improving the quality of code —such as  Scilint for Scilab—or to verify it—Alt-Ergo,  the SMT solver developed by Sylvain Conchon at Toccata.

OCamlPro now employs 5 engineers, who all hold PhDs, and 2 CIFRE PhD students.

Keywords: Security OCaml OCamlPro Language Safety