After completing her thesis on robot control software systems, Pascale Vicat-Blanc became a Senior Lecturer at Centrale-Lyon and then a Senior Research Scientist at Inria. She was a founder of Lyatiss in 2010, heading for Silicon Valley to create her company and revolutionize the universe of the Cloud.
PhD in Computer Science at INSA
Research Director at Inria in RESO project-team
Foundation of Lyatiss, CloudWeaver
Senior Director Product Development chez F5 Networks
Research as a breeding ground of entrepreneurship
I discovered Inria during my thesis; I was working on robotic operating systems and had taken part in a seminar on real-time systems: the presentation by Gérard Le Lann made a deep impression on me. I was teaching at Centrale Lyon and I asked to be delegated to Inria in 2001 to devote myself more fully to research and became director of research in 2005. I created the RESO project team set up between ENS and Inria: it took me a year to have the project accepted and I was deeply marked by the collective approach to project analysis and presentation. It was real teamwork, with almost a family atmosphere: we had to concentrate our forces internally but we also had to convince our peers during the course of extremely intense discussions which were essential to ensuring that the project was sufficiently mature. Even though there was a degree of competition, we were all in different but relatively adjacent fields, which allowed a cross-pollination of ideas and a sense of perspective made possible by these exchanges, which helped advance the research.
Inria subsequently stressed the potential for transfer of the project: this was not something that was completely natural for me, but I had been made aware there of questions of intellectual property, patents andd marketable technologies. I therefore took some training courses, in particular the Inria-Transfert Boot Camps [today IT-Translation], filed patents…. and moved from research to technology transfer! I launched my own start-up, Lyatiss (now CloudWeaver), in 2010, after winning the OSEO competition (now BPI) and the French-Tech Tour in Silicon Valley (a competition to explore the commercial potential of a start-up in the USA). I very quickly realised that our product was too advanced for the European market and went to California where there was more traction.
Being an entrepreneur is not as easy as it might seem. It’s extremely complicated for a researcher and constitutes a fundamental change in their DNA. All one’s energy has to be focused on the search for tailoring a product to the customer’s immediate needs, rather than on a concept or an technological innovation. Researchers are not naturally hardwired to focus on creating a market and developing a customer base and a researcher’s time-frame is the next five or ten years. An entrepreneur is looking at next year, the next quarter and worries about paying the bills at the end of the month!
If I came back to research one day, I would probably concentrate on technology transfer, on transmitting my experience and I would do things completely differently. We were not aggressive enough: industry no longer has the time and the means to carry out research and public research is not close enough to industry, which is developing increasingly rapidly. Research brings a long-term vision, a reflection, which is necessary for industrial development. However, in France - as in the United States - the divide between the concerns of these two worlds is still too great. The transfer of know-how and technologies needs to be accelerated.
My first digital memory
A friend had set up his own IT company and we talked about machines, programmes and so on. I was eight years old and this was a completely unknown world! I was fascinated by his story and by the mystery surrounding the field he worked in. In 1969, computers had not come to France and for me this was extremely abstract, but also attractive: during the first steps on the Moon, I particularly remember seeing the NASA control rooms!
Since the sale of my start-up to F5 Network, the specialist in network services for applications, I have been concentrating on the development of new products, interacting extremely closely with our customers and on innovation, in particular by filing patents. I maintain regular contacts with the Silicon Valley branch of Inria which needs to develop further and be more visible within the industry in order to consolidate the bridge between France and the United States. I would like to find the time to help them do this!
What about tomorrow?
My field of interest is still focused on networks and distributed systems. Since the 2000s, there have been three major disruptions: the virtualisation of networks and systems, infrastructures and networks as services and high levels of programmability (infrastructures and networks as a code). I am today dealing with an Internet of Things initiative, which lies at the heart of the digital transformation which extends the digital world, via these networks, to the physical one. Distributed systems are becoming more complex, more tentacular and increasingly dynamic. There are new technical problems to be solved and therefore considerable upstream fundamental research has to be developed, first of all in the field of security, programmable networks, distributed systems, parallel computing, but also in robots and artificial intelligence on the basis of robust mathematics. The connected world as a whole will benefit: it will become more autonomous, in the areas of transports, health, industry, etc. Collaboration between machines and the real world will grow, but also between humans and machines, thus forming a virtuous triangle. The more these machine-world connections (or digital transformations) grow, the more humans will be able to disconnect from the machine and turn to other humans and to nature. With artificial intelligence, there are of course risks of misuse, but the social networks for example can counteract any malicious intentions. In California, we can feel the stirrings of this change; management and working methods are changing, with the focus shifting more towards humans and to nature.