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Mentoring according to Alexis Hernot

As part of its X-Up program, the École Polytechnique startup incubator and gas pedal offers each startup the opportunity to be accompanied by one or more mentors.

A mentor is a person who, thanks to his or her experience, is able to offer guidance, insight and advice. He or she does not give answers, but helps to find them, can sometimes just be there to serve as a role model, can set an example through his or her career, relationships, experiences in general, etc. To conclude, he is there to inspire and help entrepreneurs discover their challenges.

To better illustrate this role, Alexis Hernot talks about his role as a mentor at EpiLAB.

What were the key stages of your career and what are your expertises?

As soon as I studied at the Ecole Polytechnique, I wanted to combine health and technology. This was probably a family influence as my father was a doctor.  I took the complementary training in human health and did my internships at Sanofi in a research laboratory and then in a factory. While I was in application school, I created a software for Sanofi to predict the absorption of molecules from in-vitro measurements. This fascinated me. However, I realized that it took more than ten years to bring a new drug to market, which was not what I was looking for: a rapid and iterative innovation.

I then joined a consulting firm to discover other industries and quickly realized that an MBA would be a great opening. I was lucky enough to join the MBA program at INSEAD.

After my MBA I wanted to join a company providing technology for healthcare but none of them inspired me. Passionate about technology, I first worked in payment systems and then in air transport systems. I realized that I lacked knowledge about software. So I relearned to code on my evenings and weekends. As I needed an application to put my learning into practice I decided to create a shared online vaccination booklet. I have patented it.

When I felt ready to create a company I partnered with a doctor and in 2013 we created Calmedica. We tried to market the vaccination booklet but it didn't work: everyone was interested but no one was willing to pay. We made a pivot by creating a product around a feature that seemed very promising: the ability to chat via SMS. This feature has now become Memoquest, our multi-channel remote monitoring platform.

When I was asked to become an entrepreneur-in-residence at INSEAD, I didn't hesitate. I regularly met young entrepreneurs who were struggling with tasks that didn't seem complex at first glance. That's when I realized that the experience I had acquired in large groups was a great help in structuring Calmedica: drafting an exclusivity contract, recruiting an employee, setting up procedures, etc.

The idea is not to tell young entrepreneurs what to do, but to bring their problems closer to a similar situation that we have experienced and to let them benefit from the lessons we have learned from the right or wrong decisions.

What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

My father was a doctor, but I spent almost all of my teenage years on the family farm. In both professions, people take on their own risks and rewards. I knew that this lifestyle choice has risks but brings great freedom.

An essential difference between working in business and being an entrepreneur is that the entrepreneur works on a project with a long-term vision. This is why, when you are an entrepreneur, you are ready to put a lot more energy into the details than you would in a company where you are an employee.

Another point is that the entrepreneur shapes his company with the values he holds dear. At Calmedica, the main value is responsibility: everyone is responsible for their actions and the way they organize their work. It is not a set of disembodied values that one would have in a large group.

You can determine the DNA of the company when you are an entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur, you choose your battles, i.e. your priorities, and you make decisions. It seems obvious but often in large companies not to make decisions is a more certain way to progress because it avoids making mistakes.  On the other hand, one must recognize one's mistakes and continue to make decisions because this is what allows one to advance, largely by groping in a new market.


What advice would you give to entrepreneurs or startups that are just starting out?

Many entrepreneurs focus on what are called vanity metrics: raising funds, recruiting a team. This is reassuring, but it is often a smoke and mirrors approach. When raising funds, the founder is looking to spend the money well: recruit a team, make a nice product, have a motivating work environment,... When you don't raise funds, you wonder how to find customers, and what product they will buy.

So my advice is not to raise money until you know what you are going to sell and to whom you are going to sell it. You have to make an MVP (Minimum Valuable Product) and see if there is a use for it: are you able to interest someone and sell them something. By the way, an MVP is something that can be built in 1 day, not more.

Getting started is not about raising money to create the product. Launching is about understanding the market and approaching customers to see if there is traction.

What inspired you to become a mentor at X-Up?

I am an entrepreneur in residence at INSEAD. These discussion sessions are very enriching because it allows me to put my way of operating into perspective and to take stock of my experiences. And it's a great pleasure to help others, to pass on, to see that the experience acquired has a societal value.

When X offered me the opportunity to be part of the mentoring program, I didn't hesitate. However, the situations are very different: when you are an entrepreneur in residence, the diversity of questions comes from the multiplicity of entrepreneurs, whereas in the case of mentoring, this diversity of questions comes from the development of the project over time.

What do you think about innovation in France?

Startups can benefit from a lot of aid but for that they have to hire specialized firms to detect and write the aid files because the procedures are too complicated and too numerous.

Innovation is also hindered by the complexity of human resources regulations. It is impossible to write an employment contract or to make a payroll without the help of a good specialist.