Interview with Ezio Malis
Robocortex is the latest start-up to come out of Inria. It was created by Ezio Malis, a researcher turned entrepreneur, in response to the interest shown in his research results by industrial companies. His image analysis software, designed for robot vision, has many potential civilian and military applications, from reconnaissance drones to vacuum cleaners. We spoke with this innovator.
How does one end up creating a start-up?
Ezio Malis: At the end of my university studies I did an internship, partly at EDF and partly in the LAGADIC team at the Inria Rennes research centre, where I then studied for my PhD thesis. In 2000, I joined the ICARE team (which subsequently became AROBAS), which enabled me to pursue research on real-time image analysis for robotics. I had never imagined myself starting a business. But in 2007, the growing interest shown in the technology by industrial companies persuaded me to develop the applications myself, rather than sign a technology transfer agreement and let others do it in my place. I was also interested in the possibility of learning a new trade. After winning a prize in the Oséo innovative businesses competition in 2008, I got a consultancy firm to do some market research to assess the feasibility of the project. In 2009, Inria Sophia-Antipolis allowed me to create the EVOLUTION team, a team dedicated to maturing the technology we had developed. In 2010, the creation of the start-up was authorised by the Inria Chairman and CEO. On 22 October last year, it was officially created with my partner Manuel Asselot, who is also the sales director.
On a scale from a simple research result to a marketable product, what is the status of your technology?
Ezio Malis: The technology remains Inria’s property. It is the subject of a technology transfer agreement between Inria and the start-up Robocortex. The patent licence for the technology developed by the EVOLUTION team provides for royalties to be paid by the start-up, with an option to eventually purchase the rights to the technology. Inria has made things a lot easier by hiring engineers to work on collaborative projects that have allowed us to get up and running.
What does the future hold for Robocortex?
Ezio Malis: We have a starting turnover figure that we were able to achieve thanks to the preliminary work we did whilst still at Inria. The transition has been very gradual: in fact we are still in Inria's offices. We're planning to move into premises at the PACA-EST incubator next April. When the ongoing projects are finished, we will be able to continue to work with Inria - in robotics, for example, we will be able to collaborate with the AROBAS team at Sophia-Antipolis, LAGADIC at Rennes, and IMARA at Rocquencourt, as well as other teams working on computer vision. We have always taken part in projects involving several teams. I don’t want the fact that I’m at Robocortex to change anything; I am more focused on industrialisation now, but the research subjects are still the same.
Robocortex uses image analysis software designed for real-time robot vision, based on ‘robust’ algorithms developed at Inria. Rather than trying to replicate the quality of human vision, the start-up is developing a form of vision that is close to it, and deploying it in robots to help them find their way around their environment. This service robotics technology has multiple applications.
It could, for example, significantly improve the performance of vacuum cleaner robots. At present, these are fitted with a telemetric sonar or laser sensor and are “blind” - they only remove dust by going over the surfaces again and again!
Robocortex already markets two products. The first, Rox Tracking SDK, makes it possible to identify and track an object in a video image, in order to monitor road traffic, for example. This technology, which is built in to embedded video cameras, can be used to detect pedestrians or check safety distances. The product has already won over the company Valéo in relation to cars and Bertin Technologies with regard to reconnaissance and surveillance drones.
The second product, Rox Odometry SDK, makes it possible to estimate the position of a moving vehicle (odometry). This embedded software makes it possible to monitor the movements of a robot, for example, but also to superimpose objects on a video scene (special effects) or to develop new services for smartphones. Negotiations are underway with developers of Smartphone applications. At present, other companies selling the same kind of products do not offer sufficiently robust and reliable algorithms to represent genuine competition for the Robocortex technology on the market.
These articles could interest you:
Find out more
- 1992 : Ezio Malis left Milan with his engineering degree from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris Supélec
- 2000 : He joined the team ICARE in Sophia Antipolis after 2 years post-doc at Cambridge University
- 2009 : Creation of the Team EVOLUTION
- October 22, 2010 : Creation of the start-up Robocortex
Start-up Inria 2005-2017
The technology companies originating from Inria manufacture products stemming from research prototypes or disseminate the know-how acquired by the Institute. Their founding teams include a former member of an Inria team.