Eureka moment during EIT Digital Doctoral School leads to promising startup
Do you know what a Eureka moment is? Also known as the Eureka effect or Aha! moment, it refers to the experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. Wilfried Dron had such a moment as a bright engineer and transformed himself into an entrepreneur. And he knows for sure that the world is waiting for his product.
It all began in 2011 at the EIT Digital Doctoral School. He was in one of the first PhD intakes of this European education program and was working on a thesis about wireless sensor network architecture. He was supposed to work on devices with lifetime constraints. He found that batteries would be depleted before the product lifecycle ended. “So, I was searching for a tool that was able to provide me information about the battery lifetime before even designing a device. I could not find anything like that, so I wanted to develop it.” This was such a big investment that he decided to make this development subject of his PhD. The main question was: ‘how to develop a device with advance knowledge of how long it will last on the battery charge?’. His answer was to be found in his thesis "Lifetime estimation method for connected devices". In here lay his Eureka moment, although he didn’t quite see it as such in the beginning.
By December 2014 he had found a possible answer for a problem that had dogged the sector for some time. But he was not an entrepreneur. There he stood: being very qualified, having a great idea but lacking the skills to put the idea into a business model. “In the scientific world you have to prove your ideas. In science, you don’t count your chickens before they hatch. In the business world, you first gather interest for your proposition. That is a totally different approach. In business, you do not make a product if you do not know there’s a market for it.”
During the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program (I&E) of the EIT Digital Doctoral School, he mastered the necessary business skills to take his idea forward. The programme consists of an educational element providing training in innovation, management and business development. It also involved a “mobility” element meaning he had the opportunity to go to Sweden for six months to explore research results. “I wanted to gather proof of a need for my product. In these six months, I discovered that my project would indeed really fill a gap in the market.”
It was in Sweden that his Eureka moment really began to crystalise. He was surrounded by software developers who, it seemed, didn’t take hardware into account while designing new products. “I told them about my concept and when I saw the looks on their faces, I knew that I had found something that would tackle a real issue.” During the business development experience in I&E he met a lot of people from several companies. These companies, Dron discovered, spent a lot of time redesigning their prototypes. They did not have a tool to predict the lifespan of their products or their constituent parts. “I realized I could create value with my product. I knew from that moment I had gold in my hands. I can allow companies to grow by estimating in the design process how the battery will impact on the design.”
The need for a concept like Dron’s was always there, only no one asked the question how to tackle the issue. Dron explains why: “In product development you need to consider different aspects at the same time: such as computer science, chemistry and user behaviour in relation to a single device. You can find tools for this in each category, but there is nothing that combines each of these areas. To measure the operational life of your product you have to know the lifespan of each individual part and how they relate to each other. A product consists mostly of components from different suppliers and end products are often not tested holistically.
Building a prototype can take a long time. In this process developers make assumptions about the lifetime of the battery. If these assumptions are not accurate, the company can lose a lot of time and money. My solution gives confidence in the design and gives a better overview so that choices can be made to obtain the maximum operational life of the product while at the same time shortening the time to develop it. It helps designers to make better and more durable designs.”
In order to make sure he could market his idea, and while still writing his thesis, he applied for a patent for his concept in 2015 - he then graduated later that year. The next step in his transformation from scientist to entrepreneur was starting an EIT Digital innovation activity. He successfully applied to EIT Digital’s call for proposals within the Cyberphysical systems action line category alongside the Swedish laboratory, SICS and Spanish ATOS in January 2016. Together they worked on software embedded in devices that can predict when the product will shut down and detects the aging of the battery. Atos is now using this as a usecase to demonstrate its open platform.
“In the meantime I also started a maturation program with technology transfer organisation SATT LUTECH.” After nine months Dron had enough confidence in his concept to launch his own startup in September 2016. With the help of EIT Digital, he gathered a team of seven people to join Wisebatt alongside himself as CEO and founder. “I have proved the concept technically and proved the market needs.” His company is now being incubated by the French incubator Agoranov.
Networking is the key to getting customers, Dron says. “I owe this partly to the business development team at EIT Digital which added greatly to my own initiatives. For example, I went to CES in Las Vegas to present my product and test the concept. Since 2015 I have met more than hundred companies. I now have a great network and have gathered knowledge on potential customer needs. That is key in understanding the business.” That takes a lot of time. But Dron believes time is never wasted. “Even if you fail, you’ll learn.”
His company Wisebatt, is a business to business company. Any company that works with batteries in ICT-devices comes within his target group. That can include anything from Original Equipment Manufacturers, to design practices that design products for other companies. Dron expects to get ten customers this year - he is already negotiating contracts with eight potential clients – and a further hundred customers in 2017.
In three years Dron plans to have entered the European and US markets. He aims to have a team of twenty professionals and more than 500 customers. He also plans to expand the business with four new products. In order to achieve this goal, he will join the EIT Digital Accelerator programme.
To Dron this startup is like a baby. “I feel it. It is like a living being. It requires all my attention. If something urgent pops up, everything else has to wait. I really think that this is a living thing, it grows and I have to feed it with new customers. And at the same time, I must always question myself if I am on the right track and if I still have the right solution. Science is, after all, about being able to question what you are doing.” Science and business work well together for that matter.