Viewing life in 3D

Dr Sandra Sulser Written by Dr Sandra Sulser
Published on 03 March 2016
6 min. read
By Sandra Sulser & Maria Broggi
Nanolive is a two year old hightech startup based at EPFL. They have raised millions from private investors and won numerous awards for their development of the 3D Cell Explorer, a revolutionary tomographic microscope to look instantly inside living cells in 3D.

IF Lausanne: Hi, can you briefly describe yourself, what you do, and why you think you are here today?
Yann: Hi, my name is Yann Cotte and I am the CEO of Nanolive. During my PhD in Physics at EPFL, together with my colleagues I had the chance to make a fundamental discovery in microscopy. Afterwards I decided to utilize this new technology to create a product which could be useful for almost everyone from researchers to students as in my case. I founded a company: Nanolive and got the best qualified and motivated people on board who helped me to accomplish this mission. I guess these are the main reasons for which I am here today.

IF Lausanne: What does the concept of being an innovator mean to you? What should a person do to become one?
Yann: I believe that an Innovator is someone able to bring something better than what existed before to the public. Something new, more useful and usable. To do so, one needs to permanently question himself, hurry up to make all the necessary errors as soon as possible (then they cost you less), continually check and refine the vision, and be ready to walk the extra mile 😉

IF Lausanne: Do you consider yourself an Innovator? And what about the others, do people consider you and the technology you invented as innovative?
Yann: This is a difficult question to answer, I would start from the second one, well, if you invited me to give this interview, I guess yes, people consider me an innovator and yes, no doubts about the technology. We created a revolutionary product, a microscope, which enables scientists, MDs but also undergrad students to finally look inside living cells without any marker, any stain and any preparation of the sample.
About how I consider myself, I have never thought about myself as an innovator. I just always did what I love to do. When I decided to create Nanolive I set a target and I worked for it every day (and many nights) with passion and determination. It was not easy all the time but I had the chance to meet very talented and motivated people who shared with me the same challenge and walked by my side during these last two years of success and challenges.

IF Lausanne: We heard you just launched your 3D Cell Explorer at one of the biggest cell biology conferences in the world: ASCB 2015. Do you want to tell us something more about? 
Yann: It was awesome, a dream come true. The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting is THE biggest cell biology meeting in the world and a yearly International conference taking place in the USA which groups, every year, few thousands of cell biology researchers from all around the world. This is the second time for Nanolive at ASCB. ASCB2014 was the first big conference we ever attended. We went there with no microscope, and totally unaware of what was exactly waiting for us. It came out to be a huge success. This year we decided to have our official product launch over there and we were proven right. People were just amazed by the 3D Cell Explorer. During the whole conference, we never stopped doing demos and having people over at our booth. The launch event took place on the last night of the conference, two hours after the exhibit hall was already closed. We were seriously afraid that no one would have showed up but, surprise, we hold our keynote lecture in a 50 people room and I can tell that the public was at least the double, half was just standing. Everyone had plenty of questions and many people expressed the desire to order a microscope.

IF Lausanne: What were the most difficult moments and the most exciting ones in your entrepreneurial adventure? The biggest satisfactions?
Yann: As for everyone who is starting a new business, the most challenging moment is actually the beginning, when you are alone presenting an idea, with no product, no team, no money. You come out from academia, you have no entrepreneurial experience and you need to learn fast in order to convince people to trust you and your idea and to help you to realize it. After this first challenge you realize that the learning process just started. You have to hire a team and to learn how to manage people. You might lose some of the best members of your team, for many different reasons and you need to accept their decision, understand it and try to find a replacement for them (for us this happened more than once…). But then you understand that everything happens for a reason and every bad experience makes you stronger. Next time you will be prepared to react faster and more effectively.
About the most exciting ones, the whole 2015 was a year of great success for Nanolive. Beside the realization of the commercial product and the market launch, we were also honored by many many important awards and prizes: We started in February with the “50 start-ups in which to invest” from Le Bilan, immediately accompanied by the memorable success from the Pionierpreis & the FIT, the same month. PERL prize followed in May together with the Photonics technology award received in Munich in June. In August, the international Microscopy Today Innovation Award gave us great credibility among the American scientific community. In September, we made our entry into the Top100 Swiss start-ups. Then the “Oscar of Invention” was announced in Las Vegas during the 2015 R&D 100 Awards & Technology Conference. Finally in December we obtained The Scientist’s Top 10 Innovations of 2015.
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