An interview with Vincent Croquette, the school’s newly appointed director

  Print version of this article RSS

On January 1st, 2019, Vincent Croquette became General Director of ESPCI Paris. The following is an interview with this researcher and entrepreneur, who actually graduated from the school with an engineering degree.

You’re an ESPCI Paris alum. Are you returning to your roots?

When I arrived at ESPCI in 1975, I didn’t know what to expect. I soon found myself captivated by the spirit of independence and freedom that reigned there. I particularly appreciated the learning-through-doing approach, which is what enabled me to make my own tools for my research, and my own prototypes for the companies I built. ESPCI has been an incredible asset throughout my career. And in a way, it was to return the favor that I applied for the job. I’m happy to be back here as director.

There’s a lot to be done in the years ahead…

And I get the impression I haven’t arrived for the quietest period.

The restructuration work at the school has only just begun, and after my brief experience with similar work carried out at ENS, I can appreciate the full measure of ESPCI’s ambition.

Of course, it will take a long time, and we must be prepared for many surprises over the next few years. But this is a unique opportunity for a school in Paris, a challenge that will have extraordinary impact. As you know, the building project designed by Anne Démians is headed in the right direction: towards greater interaction between teams and, obviously, improved facilities. I’m confident, because the teams are very committed to the project and are working very hard.

The Paris City Council is extraordinarily supportive: at 176 million euros, the renovation is one of the biggest investments made during Anne Hidalgo’s term. I’m happy to know that the City Council is fully aware of the treasure the school represents in the heart of Paris. ESPCI contributes to making the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève a center for French research.

Speaking of research, what is your vision for it?

As far as research is concerned, I consider myself an heir to my predecessors: it is crucial that researchers be free. Free to choose their subjects, free to choose the institutions for whom they register their patents. The administration is neither there to manage nor to impose research projects, but rather to support them.

Research at ESPCI is dynamic and I am pleased with this. Laboratories have been recently restructured or created, around clear and ambitious scientific projects, and I strongly support these evolutions. For the first time, a shared laboratory has been created with ENS, which also indicates a very positive dynamic between ESPCI and neighboring institutions, sparked by the creation of Université PSL.

Are you going to carry on in the spirit instilled by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and his successors as far as curriculum is concerned?

PGG shook up instruction at the school by enhancing classes, bringing in new blood, and including biology in the curriculum. Once again, I’m not going to change what works.

Also, the school was asked in a report from the Commission des titres d’ingénieur (Engineering Accreditation Institution or CTI) to reduce the volume of classroom hours by 10%. How do we combine this obligation (because we are obligated to do it) and the need, in my opinion, to add and enhance certain subjects? I’m convinced we can turn what appears to be a contradiction into an opportunity by developing connections between subjects. Classes can be optimized, but this can only be done through dialogue with teachers.

At the same time, our society is being disrupted by electronics and computers, which are omnipresent in every innovation. No good engineer can ignore them. In both industry and research, it is essential to be able to conceive and create, by yourself, quickly, a tool or a prototype, be it an electronic circuit or a computer program.

We must adjust. We must favor well-made heads over jam-packed heads. I’m convinced that certain practical work experiences are more impactful than hours in the classroom. Learning by doing is a critical element: the team science projects established five years ago encourage a proactive approach that I strongly believe in.

Another CTI obligation: international reach. It’s a fact: the school is not well-known internationally. It is fundamental that our students master English and get out and see the world. That was essential for me and it will be even more so for current students. It is no less essential for the world to know about ESPCI. Once again, the school is headed in the right direction with the industry internship and the third-year research project carried out abroad, the Cofund program, discussions with MIT and other universities that share our spirit… But we can’t operate on a case-by-case basis; our international strategy can be further refined. This facet will also be one of my priorities.

Could you tell us more about the third pillar in the ESPCI triptych: innovation and start-ups?

I am firmly convinced that we have, as scientists, a kind of responsibility. We’re like artists who receive a stipend. Our discoveries must serve a purpose, they must do something new for the greatest number of people.

Many of our start-ups encounter well-deserved success, and they owe it notably to the supportive relationships they have been able to cultivate with our laboratories, but also to the spirit of innovation that the school instills in the young entrepreneurs it produces. The ESPCI education creates both intellectually and scientifically resourceful engineers and researchers, and this is recognized throughout the industry sector in France.

I myself founded two start-ups; I know that the road to innovation isn’t always easy. But the school has incredible tools: PC’Up, our incubator, is always full. The school and the incubator provide entrepreneurs with a multitude of first-rate tools and scientific equipment and techniques. There may also be room for reflection on this point: perhaps we could combine workshops and skills to help entrepreneurs at certain technical stages…

We must continue to strengthen our industrial partnerships: 80% of our students will work in the R&D department of a large industrial company. We already have five teaching chairs from industry and numerous partnerships; there too we’re on the right path.

The school is a founding member of Université PSL. What do you see for the future?

The construction of Université PSL is an opportunity. ESPCI must participate in the project to contribute its uniqueness, particularly through the involvement of representatives in the development of graduate programs.

We must smooth out boundaries with other schools, like ENS, Chimie ParisTech, and Les Mines ParisTech, that are part of this brand-new university. The school can keep its DNA while broadening its possibilities. There is an opportunity there for our students, our researchers, and our personnel. We have everything to gain by facilitating exchanges between schools.

These are all projects that we must see through to the end in the years to come. It is a large, a very large program, but also an incredible challenge, probably the first of its kind for a school in Paris. And I’m happy to be part of it.

10 Rue Vauquelin, 75005 Paris