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Fourth HEC Seed Mixes Bras, Perfumes and Green Tech

Almost 300 people turned out for the fourth edition of HEC Seed, the international entrepreneurship forum organized annually by, and for, the school’s students. Designed to empower young entrepreneurs and connect them with investors and business professionals, it was held at Station F, a first for this ambitious gathering. The June 6 event was also the occasion to announce the winners of the second-ever HEC Innovation Awards for the two best startups in the HEC ecosystem.

HEC Seed 2018 Group Photo

It’s been a great experience, a real teaching curve for us.” The co-organizer of the Seed startup event, Jérémie Zarka, looked slightly disheveled after overseeing the seven-hour gathering that brought together HEC Paris students with company representatives scouting for new talent. The event was held just off the appropriately-named Turing Square, appropriate because it also featured specialist debates on this year’s theme, “Can AI help startups develop a competitive advantage in today’s business environment?” But more of that later.

Jérémie Zarka and his six-person team had spent months coordinating the pitch competitions, its pre-selection committee discussions, the two panel debates and, to cap it all off, the informal networking cocktail that closed the event. “It’s the first time we’ve organized this event outside of the Jouy-en-Josas campus and condensed it all into a day.”

“That has its good and its bad points,” the MBA co-director of the 2019 student cohort admitted, “On the one hand, we’ve relocated it to the heart of a symbol, this huge Station F startup campus – and that’s been a real plus in terms of centrality and proximity to major companies. On the other, we’ve perhaps lost the inter-activity of the workshops that the HEC campus afforded in the previous editions.”

From Life-saving Bras to Do-it-yourself Perfumes

Nevertheless, the day featured a dynamic mix of activities climaxing with the pitch competition pitting the ten finalists in a two-stage contest. Already, those retained had come through a preliminary round that had whittled down the 60 applicants.

© Unpose – Ciprian Olteanu

The competition was sector agnostic with startups at various stages of their development (love money, pre-seed and seed). Dominant themes were shipping, freight, food tech and the green economy. Yet, there was certainly more than that on offer. Take, for example, the opening presentation by Claire Chabot: the young entrepreneur described with alacrity her Endeer startup  which offers women made-to-measure bras. “Are you aware that 80% of all bras do not fit women’s breasts?” Chabot asked the slightly bemused audience. “That 77% of women say they suffer from the painful underwire holding up the breasts? Most worryingly, that 65% of breast cancers are located where that underwire is? Well, thanks to a 3D scan and an IPhone we can create perfectly adapted bras, called SHAPES. And do away with its present debilitating material. As a result, we are liberating, freeing, women’s breasts!”

Sillages Opens Doors to DIY Perfume-making  

The idea had been good enough to win both the 2018 Add Fab Pitch Startups competition and the Fashion Pitch Night in 2016. But at Station F there was also enthusiasm for startups like Carbon Karma, a platform that offers consumers a variety of carbon-reducing projects aimed at offsetting their carbon emissions. Then, it was the turn of Dataswati in a pitch presented by the charismatic project manager Irina Arzumanyan. She outlined her firm's objectives as an AI-driven company designed to optimize industrial processes and become data-driven. And there was warm applause for Garantme, a startup seeking to resolve the problems between landlords and tenants which often paralyze France’s flat rental sector. Their solution is to create a system of French guarantors to allay fear and suspicion on both sides of the rental divide.

© Unpose – Ciprian Olteanu

But it was the pre-laureate initiative called Sillages which most seduced a jury composed of entrepreneurs, academics and investors. “Your pitch displayed very clear objectives and a sharp understanding of a market that is trending upwards,” jury representative and HEC Affiliate Professor Michel Safars told Sillages co-founder Maxime Garcia-Janin, handing over the €5,000 prize check that goes with the HEC Seed award. “This is my Miss France moment,” responded an emotional Garcia-Janin, admitting it was the first such reward he has ever won. “We are aiming to revive the French high perfumery heritage by creating fragrances that are unique to each wearer. You tailor your own fragrance with the help of our perfumers and we deliver a creative, balanced, and harmonious product. And this is done all online, naturally.”

Innovation Award 2018 for Two Startups Pepping Up the Construction Industry

Another first at the 2018 HEC Seed event was the attribution of the 2018 HEC Innovation Award. This double prize rewards what a jury of HEC Alumni from Silicon Valley consider are the two best startups currently in the early stages of the HEC ecosystem. The HEC Foundation Executive Director Sophie Gautié and its International Development Director Deborah Aringoli were at Station F to share the prize with one winner; whilst, simultaneously, award founder Aurélia Setton hosted a prize ceremony in San Francisco to hand over the second Innovation Award to the other winner. 

This year’s laureates were Data Soluce and Backacia (previously known as BatiPhoenix), both with links to the construction industry. The former already bagged the HEC Entrepreneurship pitching prize last year for making rapid inroads in the construction industry by synchronizing data for each actor of the industry’s value chain. This, co-founders Nicolas Reigner and Simon Valadou (an HEC MBA graduate 2017) believe, will optimize the use of such data for the entire lifetime of a building. 

Backacia, meanwhile, is a green-tech startup devoted to recycling discarded building material. “We are here to change the world,”  announced a delighted Kesia Vasconcelos, the young cofounder with Lucile Hamon of the company, as she graciously accepted the award in Paris. “You might not know this, but construction companies are the biggest producers of waste in the world,”  continued Vasconcelo who graduated from HEC Paris in 2017 with an Entrepreneurship specialization.  “In France alone, they are responsible for 246 tons of waste annually! We at Backacia have designed a digital platform to transform this reality and breathe new life into discarded material. In other words, the construction waste of today will become the resources of tomorrow.”

The 2018 Innovation Award winners received $25,000 each. The donors included HEC Alumni André Haddad, who was also this year's principal sponsor". Equally valuable to this year’s winners will be the top-notch mentoring offered, aimed at empowering and encouraging the nascent companies to develop their full potential.

Lively Debates over Banks and FinTech Relationships

Earlier in the day, the HEC Seed participants were treated to rare insights into the AI and fintech worlds, featuring seasoned entrepreneurs and industry specialists. Netatmo founder Fred Potter shared his company’s engagement with the smart home of the future aimed at more efficient energy footprints to fight climate change. Meanwhile, the panel discussion entitled “FinTech and Banks: Friends or Foe?” pitched Claire Calmejane, Director of Innovation at Lloyds Banking Group against pretty much everyone else in the debate, representatives from the fintech industry who complained about the skeptical attitude of the banking industry towards the growth of their sector.

The feisty Lloyds director was the first to acknowledge her bank’s evolution, however: “The game has completely changed for us,” Calmejane stated, “and we’re now switched on to the online banking service. 70% of our sales are done this way nowadays! So the only way forward is for fintech and banks to collaborate.”  Qanta CEO Alexandre Prot agreed that bank attitudes have indeed evolved toward fintech “but only because we’ve got stronger.” “Now, we are working on partnerships that will take us both forward,” he concluded.  Jean-Baptiste Sciandra of the Lendix lending marketplace was more critical: “Bank representatives would visit us as if we were in a zoo, strange creatures who they would never dream of working with. But, in the space of a couple years, there have been huge advances. Basically,” Sciandra said, “the partnership development has gone from zero to one.”

This final debate was chaired with authority by HEC’s Olivier Bossard, Executive Director of the MSc Finance department. Two weeks later, he and his team were to celebrate HEC’s return to the top of the global FT ranking in the Masters in Finance Pre-experience.