Laure Reinhart is a specialist in scientific computation through public research and industry, and tells the story of the gradual rapprochement of the two worlds.
Researcher and then director of Rocquencourt centre
Director of Partnership and communication at Thalès
Director in charge of strategy for Research National Department
Director of Innovation Partnerships at Bpi France
The taste for applied research
After French graduate school Normale Sup, teaching seemed to me to be the logical and practical path in order to start a family, but my Paris VI professors proposed that I pursue my postgraduate studies and Philippe Ciarlet, who was scientific adviser at IRIA, suggested I do a postgraduate degree (DEA) at the institute in 1979. I was hired shortly afterwards, without passing a competitive exam and after having met just two people! IRIA, which was still in its early days, did not have EPST (French public scientific and technological institute) status, and developed through co-optation.
I worked on applied research projects in scientific computing for five years and, in particular, I developed contracts with EDF, Dassault, the telecommunications research centre CNET, etc. When Christian Saguez created Simulog, the first Inria start-up, in 1984, Anne Schroeder returned to her position as industrial relations manager and asked me to come and assist her. It was vital for me to give meaning to my research and I very quickly turned towards technology transfer and industrial dialogue activities. I never abandoned the theoretical aspects of research - at the origin of everything - but I especially wanted to show that what you learned in mathematics at university made it possible to solve very practical and industrial problems. For example, I remember a colleague at the CNET who wanted to model aurorae borealis without really knowing how to do it: she was asked to write out the equations and, together with Roland Glowinski, we found the correct mathematical formulation that enabled the modelling to be simpler and closer to reality. This give me a crazy energy in the - sometimes dark - tunnel of programming! Anyhow, applicative data was part of the institute's culture: industrial forward-planning was not compulsory, but it was clearly encouraged.
In the mid-1980s - lacking the time to do everything - I totally gave up research to focus more particularly on supporting start-ups originating from Inria. So I accompanied the creation of Ilog, which represented a watershed in the history of start-ups coming from public research: it really was a matter of taking research results and turning them into products designed for a market. I discovered a new world - notably legal and economic - I learned how to negotiate licences, and I greatly appreciated the variety of the technology transfer professions. At the time there was, strictly speaking, no training in this field - people got into technology transfer partly by chance and by personal taste! I followed in the footsteps of Anne Schroeder by taking over from her as head of industrial relations, and was then appointed director of the Rocquencourt centre.
Being under 40 and having 500 people under one's responsibility was rare and very motivating, as was the recruitment of young researchers and the constant learning process in human resources, searching for partnerships, etc. In particular I recruited Chahab Nastar, who was spending his holidays in the darkest depths of the Rockies, and then created his own start-up, LTU Technologies, which has since been bought by SAP. I also think of Nozha Boujemaa, who was director of the Saclay research centre. This human experience helped me enormously, particularly when I took over as head of the Thales research centre. At Inria, I had picked up a certain number of instincts.
The complementarity between industry and public research
In 1999, after 20 years, I decided to leave the public sector and see another world, and I joined Thales as head of the research centre. There I discovered a totally different way of conducting research. It took me a while to understand this new environment and how it worked, its constraints and its acronyms! However that was what interested me: the goals, the challenges and the scientific environments were totally different, in particular the economic and human perspectives. I worked in English all day long; I also had a lot less freedom. It was a very complementary but also very disconcerting experience.
I then went to the Thales head office to take care of partnerships with public and international research. I was on a kind of platform incorporating a 360 degree vision of the research carried out in a major CAC 40 (French stock market) company. Together with Dominique Vernay I took part in some extraordinary projects, for example the emergence of competitiveness clusters.
After a while, I wanted to be more strongly involved on an operational level. Setting up strategy management at the French Ministry of Research was a wonderful challenge: I was back to the world of public research after six years! The problems there were again of a different kind: politics plays an important role and slows down the management of projects...one thing led to another, and I was contacted to take over as head of innovation at OSEO, which is now BpiFrance.
So today I am a member of the Inria start-up steering committee. I am in almost constant contact with the colleagues from IT-Translation: the world of innovation is quite a small one, and one of my objectives is to bring research and venture capital closer together. Companies have got into the habit of working increasingly closely with research, which was not the case 30 years ago. When I was the director of Safran, relations with research were already on the agenda at each board of directors meeting. This openness of the large companies totally reflects the change in attitudes in the public and private sector.
My first digital memory
When I began my career as a researcher, we had no terminals but paper, pencils and punch cards. I wrote my first program in Fortran on a sheet of A3 paper, and I made the mistake of not specifying between the letter O and zeroes. It meant starting again from scratch!
In addition, society's enthusiasm for start-ups has reinforced the appeal for companies coming from public laboratories or researchers: this leads to the development of the scientific arena and the world of business. Good practices in value creation have progressively spread and developed equivalent cultures - albeit different - in companies and within research teams.
The digital world of tomorrow
Different scientific disciplines are in the process of coming closer together, and their proximity will be the place of future innovations: I am thinking in particular of mathematical modelling, quite classic in the engineering sciences, and the modelling of complex systems in the very broad sense of the term. I am struck by the advances of the work of Dassault Systèmes on the modelling of the behaviour of molecules for the design of new medicines - unthinkable a few years ago - and this is thanks to computation power. However, this should gather pace and humans will be helped even more in all of their activities. But I hope that, in 50 years' time, humans will still have the means to retain their power to decide on their actions, life and their future!