From research to transfer direction at UPMC, by the way of start-up cofounding, Sophie Cluet has almost explored all facets of innovation.
Researcher and Director of the Rocquencourt Research Centre
CTO and cofounder of Xylème
Manager of the Mathematics, Physics, Nanos and ICTS service at DGRI (Research and Innovation Directorate)
Director of Research and Transfer Directorate at UPMC
The first step of innovation
I turned to the computer sciences by accident! I began my university studies very late, aged 28, as I had travelled a lot after my A levels. As I had a child, I was looking to make my situation more stable: and so I did a technology degree (DUT) in computer science through continuing training...and I loved it and carried on to thesis level. The PhD is an extraordinary training programme that has served me in research but also in all of the professions I have practised since: you learn how to define problems, model them, and carry out a state of the art before finding a solution which then needs to be enhanced one way or another. It is a comprehensive working methodology.
One of my university professors, Claude Delobel, was in an Inria project team and with the GIP (public interest group) Altaïr. I did my thesis with him at Inria within this GIP, which brought together researchers and engineers from the partner company. I was working on models and query languages for object-oriented databases, the revolution at the time - the 1980s - in the field. I was then recruited to the institute, in Serge Abiteboul's project team. In Rocquencourt, we were quite cut off from the university world - I think that has changed a lot since - and the teams and staff were almost exclusively from Inria. Between 1991 and now, associate teams have come into being and there are far more teams - following in the footsteps of the Rennes and Nancy centres - within university laboratories. The working environment at Inria was remarkable: I was supervised by the "crème de la crème"; there was a multitude of guest professors from the USA, Greece, etc.
It was also a relatively new institute with a lot of government resources. I am not sure that the budgets allocated now are as generous...at the time, all that the researchers did was research! We did not have to chase after funding.
Highlighting Research by technolofgy transfer
I developed the idea of a partnership research from my thesis onwards, which I did within a GIP and industry collaborations. In 1991 this GIP gave rise to a start-up, O2 Technology, founded by François Bancilhon. I myself co-founded another start-up, Xyleme, ten years later. As head of the VERSO project team, I was working on semi-structured heterogeneous databases, and so on XML. We wanted to process big data in an effective and intelligent way. We thought, at the time, that the Web was going to move from HTML data to XML data with semantic metadata that would enable the intelligent processing of the query results. Following a bet, within a year we created what we believed could eventually be Google XML, thanks to European funding but most of all the help of the Inria Rocquencourt management team and Inria Transfert.
I had been a researcher for ten years, and I really liked the idea of having a different type of impact. I was already doing some consultancy work for a company. However I needed to find other functions, another universe, a different temporality. I stayed with the company for two years, for what I considered was the most interesting part: the launch, looking for funding, and the creation of a universe. I did not like the business development side as much... Bernard Larrouturou proposed that I take over as director of Rocquencourt and I returned to Inria for a new experience that combined administration, human resources, property and research, and opened up new scientific and managerial horizons to me!
Following this, I wanted to gain a foothold in the ministry in order to see how the State operated. The DGRI (Directorate-General for Research and Innovation) was looking for a computer engineer to take care of the Maths-Computer Science-Physics-Chemistry sector. I went from a very operational post to a strategic one. I have been back working in an operational position since 2012. As director of research and innovation at the UPMC (Pierre and Marie Curie University), I ensure that laboratory staff receive adequate support, that the university strategy with regard to innovation is implemented, in particular through developing relations with businesses, and ensure technology transfer.
My first digital memory
In the upper sixth, we were allowed to use calculators. Before then, I did my all of my calculations using a slide rule: from one day the next we had an object that made it possible to do things more simply, in a more reliable way, and I found this extraordinary.
And tomorrow ?
An unbelievable revolution has already taken place! We are talking today about big data: we manage to process unbelievable volumes of data from anywhere...and we are not completely knowledgeable in this field. We are going to further improve the understanding, processing, securing (for programs and users) of this data. What are the other services that will emerge from all of this data and what problems will they raise? I don't know, there are already many services I would never have imagined a few years ago... Eventually, we will be able to do everything with our digital assistant!