As part of our partnership with Swissnex China, our ambassador Loïc de Prado met HEC Lausanne alumni Yann Poirier to talk about his unusual professional path, from Paris to Shanghai passing through Lausanne and Tanzania. This is the first part of their interview.
Your academic journey began after an unconventional path: you skipped the baccalaureate and you left UCLA in the US after a year. What was your first job and how did you find it?
I went through an internship exploration in various industrial companies in France for six months. One day, I came across an advertisement in the newspaper for a position as a junior stockbroker. Fifteen days after my arrival, as there weren't enough people in the trading floor, they gave me an easy order book to start with. It was the wild years of the stock market. With the initiatives taken, sometime after at the age of 20, I became one of the youngest traders on the Paris Stock Exchange. I remained a trader until the age of 30.
After 10 years at the Paris Stock Exchange, you decided to change course and venture into entrepreneurship. What were the triggers for this decision and career change?
At the beginning of the 1990s, I found myself with some money in my bank account, and that's when my second life began. To start with, a friend who owned a big audio-visual company asked me to be his chief financial officer. Simultaneously, as I become somehow visible in the market, people started to approach me with projects to see if I could finance them.
In what type of companies did you make your first investments?
When I was in the audio-visual industry, one day, two young individuals approached me and told me that everything I was doing with analog editing stations, could be done by a computer and I invested in their project which was bought by a French TV network (M6). In 1992, the internet arrived, and we expanded into website development. At the same time, I took over a small business ran by students providing services to individuals.
In 1996, you ventured into biotech by co-founding Optima Environment in Switzerland and Optima of Africa in Tanzania. What is this project, and how did you come up with the idea?
One day, I came across an article by a professor at the University of Leicester talking about seeds can purify water. So, I decide to call this university professor to let him know that I liked this project and that I was ready to potentially plant Moringa in Tanzania to cultivate the seeds. I secured an exclusivity agreement for this research program.
What was the project's value proposition?
It was to replace the chemicals used in water treatment with a natural solution. We needed to transform something that worked in test tubes into something that can be used in water treatment tanks. After that, we needed the raw material, the Moringa seed. It is for that I went to Tanzania to establish Optima of Africa, which was the plantation subsidiary of Optima Environment. Behind this company, there was a genuine intention to make it fair trade and sustainable to also create value in Tanzania.
The ambitions were high, raising 5 million CHF and a projected annual revenue of 100 million CHF in 5 years. You entered the Genilem program, but after 8 years, this project faced setbacks. Can you indicate the reasons and the lessons you drew from it?
Treating water with Moringa was a good vision but very ambitious. One of the issues was that this product would potentially work on a certain type of water but not on all. Additionally, it's an organic product, so it's alive, which complicates its production on a large scale and stabilization.
There was also a strategic issue as we pioneered different channels in which Moringa could be used as an antibacterial treatment, an oil, or even a substitute for animal gelatin. I approached Cargill to present this product and they decided to sign a 100 million contract. I also approached major players and laboratories in the cosmetic industry as Moringa could also be used for skincare. My strategy was for us to remain farmer-processors by pressing the oil because we were the only ones producing, and many industries would need our solution. Then, the transformation for its final use, we leave it to the industries for whom it is their expertise. However, two other shareholders disagreed with this project, claiming that we would be robbed of our business by industry companies. One day, I naively tried to exert pressure by saying that in that case, it's better for me to leave, and they responded that indeed it was better for me to leave. So, there you go, I lost my job that day!
After this failure, you started the postgraduate program in Management of Technology (MoT) offered by HEC Lausanne and EPFL. Why did you decide to resume your studies at that time?
I wanted to understand what had happened. I think I also had my share of responsibility, obviously. For me, it was the first time managing such an ambitious project, and it was the first time managing an industrial project. I didn't have expertise in the field. Managing a service startup in Paris is not the same as a global industrial project with a scientific program. I even decided to write my thesis on my failure.
The story of the Optima Environment S.A. project is taken to create an IMD Case that will be studied in MBA programs such as Harvard.v Do you think that if you had done this program before launching this project, you could have led this company to success?
It's very difficult to answer, but I imagine yes. If I had done this program before, I'm convinced that we would have saved time. Leading a scientific research program to turn it into a business is complicated. Researchers are curious; they love research, but searching just for the sake of it is antithetical to the profit-seeking goal for the company. Application research is needed, which can lead to the development and commercialization of a product.
What message or advice would you like to give to our students who are considering embarking on entrepreneurship?
One is an entrepreneur or not. You shouldn't do it just for the status. I have a friend who failed because he wanted to become an entrepreneur at the age of 50, even though he had always worked for big companies, as if entrepreneur was the ultimate “position”. You need to have strong intellectual, emotional, and psychological resilience to not rely on a monthly salary. It's not for everyone. You have to be able to accept failure and uncertainties. If you feel a strong call of doing it, go for it.
Stay tuned for the next episode which will relate how Yann relaunched his career and his transition in Switzerland before he embarks on his new life in Shanghai.