Collaboration between EPFL and Swisscom
The Swisscom Digital Lab is the hub between research and business. In the competence centre for digitalisation, researchers from EPFL and Swisscom employees work hand-in-hand on the technologies of the future – and they value every facet of this exchange.
Text: Christoph Widmer, Images: Boris Baldinger,
Entering the Digital Lab, the “competence centre for digitalisation” in the EPFL Innovation Park, feels like going into the workshop of a creative space: stacked wooden blocks that are often used for presentations and meetings, wooden meeting rooms and three “squad” zones dedicated to the innovation projects.
The first visible signs of the collaboration are on a whiteboard attached to the wall: mathematical formulae, function graphs, parabolas and many others notes. It is Tuesday morning, and slowly the lab is being filled by its daily visitors and the staff; the work begins…
The atmosphere is a mix of deep concentration, workshops and lively debate. Grégory Leproux, responsible for the lab, explains to us, “Days at the lab are never the same. Events, business meetings, development and exploration projects all give each week a different rhythm.”
Grégory Leproux, Head of the Digital Lab
The Swisscom Digital Lab is an innovation hub: a place which brings together researchers, corporations, start-ups and Swisscom under one roof. “The Digital Lab is a platform,” Leproux explains. “Together with customers and business units, we identify business opportunities and then leverage technologies and know-how from EPFL to develop new user experiences and new products.”
Finding the right balance between business impact and innovative research is the real challenge. In this context, Gregory Leproux often recalls the self-assurance that he observed in the start-up landscape of Silicon Valley, where people confidently focus only on the essential.
“In the Digital Lab, students and professors from EPFL collaborate with Swisscom employees to explore new technologies, improve Swisscom products, or create new ones,” says Guillermo Barrenetxea, technical leader of the Swisscom Digital Lab. He himself helps teams to scope their projects. He is fired up about practically every digitalisation topic, from AI to security, big data or IoT.
Guillermo Barrenetxea, technical leader of the Swisscom Digital Lab
This is the heart and soul of the EPFL’s guiding principle, and the Innovation Park is alive with it. The Digital Lab is at the centre of a network of over 120 start-ups, 20 large companies and 20 service providers, with more than 2,000 people working here in total. A little Silicon Valley right next to the technical university. “What innovation really means is ensuring that start-ups are created and that scientific inventions are also successfully transferred to industry,” explains Michaël Thémans, Deputy of the Vice President for Innovation at the EPFL. Astute and determined, he focuses sharply on the business aspect in order to connect EPFL researchers with companies for joint projects.
Michaël Thémans, Deputy of the Vice President for Innovation an der EPFL
But Michaël Thémans also drives support instruments within the EPFL, giving students the opportunity to gather entrepreneurship experience early on with programmes such as Xgrant, which was recently launched by the EPFL. It enables students to submit their business idea while they are still working on their bachelor’s or master’s degree. If their idea is a good one, they not only receive prize money enabling them to implement the first steps of the project, but also get to spend several months at Swissnex in San Francisco.
Meryem Wehbe works on the implementation of virtual reality experience based on 360° videos.
She is a master’s student in electrical engineering at the EPFL and an intern in the Digital Lab. There, she is developing an application that takes advantage of the upcoming 5G network capabilities. This application enables 360° video live transmissions from different perspectives – at sports events, for example. The actual goal is to generate new camera perspectives from the original ones, thus enabling events to be viewed from any angle, such as the level of the playing field.
The focussed student sees her internship at the lab as a big opportunity: “I’m just at the beginning of my career but I’m already getting insights into a wide range of research fields,” she explains enthusiastically. “I’d love to be involved in different projects simultaneously in the future too.”
Her project is innovative, demonstrates the potential of 5G and is a very good showcase. “This a good example of the type of projects we develop at the Digital Lab,” explains Guillermo Barrenetxea.
Meryem Wehbe, intern at the Digital Lab and master’s student in electrical engineering at EPFL
Meanwhile, Claudiu Musat, Research Director of the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Group at Swisscom, is working in the lab on developing artificial intelligence methods for unstructured data – i.e. text, language, and recently also images. “Do you want a whole list?” he jokes, before starting to explain calmly and in detail. The many projects also include solutions for text summarisation and chatbots that can perform tasks such as booking flights or meeting rooms. The parameters of requests made to bots, such as the time, number of people or location details, have to be extracted from the user’s question and combined to produce meaningful results.
Claudiu Musat, Research Director of the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Group at Swisscom
The researchers also keep their team spirit alive beyond working hours: “We often meet together after work,” says Musat. The chance to be able to make something big happen through their cohesion is the real incentive for Musat and the researchers in the Digital Lab.
The paradigm shift in communication that AI brings is a prime example of this: “Whether we’re making fire by rubbing two sticks together or operating a computer, we’ve always had to adapt to machines,” Musat explains pensively. “Now machines are finally performing trivial tasks for us without us having to take the first step. It’s great that we’re able to make an active contribution to this here in the Digital Lab.”
In the rush towards technology the lab is also a place for rapid prototyping sessions and innovation workshops.
“Customer-centred development comes before technologies,” explains Laurène Fleury, who was heading to facilitate an ideation workshop with a private bank and ten millennials.
With the fast pace of technological change, this generation has developed consumption patterns that are very different to those of older cohorts. “The aim of this workshop is to gain insights into the mindset of the millennials who represent their future clients; how these individuals use financial services and perceive money, and the role that a private bank can play for them. This knowledge will help our customer to push its strategy in new directions, particularly in the digital domain,” she says.
Laurène Fleury, Community Leader of the Digital Lab and user experience consultant.
From 15 February 2018, the Digital Lab will be equipped with an IoT Experience Center. Swisscom offers customers, partners and developers a platform to learn about technologies and possibilities concerning the Internet of Things, to develop ideas together and to test various new technologies on site. Swisscom supports with its IoT expertise in various formats such as boot camps, Techie Tuesdays and events.
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