EPFL’s EMBA program is focused on harnessing innovation and delivering practical solutions. It gives executives the tools they need to develop concrete responses to today’s business challenges. As part of that pragmatic approach, the participants carry out capstone projects at the end of their program, applying what they’ve learned in class to help fast-growing, innovation-oriented companies. Usually those projects take place in South Africa, but Covid-19 put a halt to all travel plans. So the participants instead turned their attention to local businesses.
De Groot contacted Innovaud, the local innovation agency, and was put in touch with Caroline Graf, head of the Scale-Up Vaud program – an initiative to promote Vaud companies that have moved past the startup phase and are expanding rapidly. Graf reached out to companies in the Scale-Up Vaud network and to a few high-growth startups. Ten replied, enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with a group of EMBA participants on a specific strategic problem. De Groot explained the project goals to the companies, and together they outlined the contours of the various projects.
Next the participant groups got busy. Working in teams of three, with each person generally from a different background and industry, they conducted research and interviews from October to December; the projects culminated in presentations to company management along with a set of tangible deliverables.
For the participants, the projects gave them first-hand experience addressing a challenge faced by a fast-growing business, often at the forefront of a disruptive technology. “Our capstone project with Daphne Technology allowed us to provide an effective response to the needs of business creation and development when it comes to bringing technology to life, in a potential market where consumers are already captivated by competitive alternatives,” says the team that worked with Daphne Technology. “It was a great experience that perfectly sums up our contribution as EPFL EMBA participants in a startup ecosystem like this one.”
For the companies, the projects gave them a team of skilled professionals who could focus entirely on a single, strategic problem. Since EPFL EMBA participants come with prior business experience and a problem-solving mindset, they could spell out actionable solutions quickly and quantify the upside for the company involved. “As a fast-growing AI company, we were happy to get concrete insight into how we could secure our company’s scalability and sustainable growth going forward,” says Alen Arslanagic, CEO of Visium. “The participants’ diverse backgrounds, enthusiasm, and high degree of professionalism meant they could thoroughly understand our industry and challenges very quickly.”
Leveraging an entire innovation ecosystem
What makes this initiative unique is that it draws on the strengths of Vaud’s entire innovation ecosystem – small businesses, universities, and the public-sector programs that support them. While Innovaud played a key role in bringing the different players together, the opportunities would not have materialized so quickly without the close ties that already exist between academia and local businesses. De Groot sees this as a quadruple-win experience – for the EPFL EMBA program, Innovaud, the participants, and the companies – that he’d like to repeat again: “Executives at these fast-growth companies have little time available and huge expectations for the value created during that time. Thanks to our collaboration with Innovaud, we were able to pinpoint business needs, set up the projects, and execute in a very short timeframe. And the companies were excited about having a fresh set of professional eyes to tackle their problems in a new way.”