Yann BOUTANT (President) and Gaël ROSSET (CTO), both engineers by training, met in Savoie (France), when they shared a desire to change their professional project. This desire naturally led them to take the plunge in 2014 and create the company KERQUEST.
Gaël worked for many years in Denmark and internationally in telecommunications before returning to France in 2009. As for Yann, his background is mainly in the continuous process industry and he has spent more than 20 years in innovation, in the fields of materials, sensors and industrial systems.
Meet two connected visionaries.
What is the basic concept of KERQUEST?
The basic concept is based on a bet: to give voice to objects, to deliver messages. The idea is to connect objects, people and system memories, i.e. objects and information in all its forms. Objects could thus become messengers of sorts, delivering a personal message attached to them. There are all kinds of potential objects: the craft or artistic object, the produced object, the “natural scene” object. We can use these objects as messaging media for industrial, logistical, personal or emotional applications. This patented concept of global messaging requires a central object recognition algorithm (family of objects or single object). However, it is not enough to recognise finely and reliably, it is necessary to contextualise and add information in order to arouse emotion and/or meaning.
In what field is your company active? What are the main activities, services and products it offers?
KERQUEST was created to work in the field of material functionalisation in the broadest sense, i.e. enabling the objects around us to acquire new functions. From 2016 we developed the “Solid Media Messaging” technology platform that allows intuitive exploration, through a mobile device, of any object, product or document.
Most people are not aware that all objects around us are distinct and unique in nature. Since the 1950s and 1960s, mass production has allowed for more and better objects of the same type to be produced, so much so that our senses no longer allow us to differentiate them immediately. However there is an underlying physical reality that belongs to no one; everything around us is made up of unique and non-duplicable elements. Our technology builds on this reality to develop various services.
Today, we can classify our activities into three areas:
- traceability management, i.e. attaching to an object or product all the information on the stages of its life, from its creation to its death, recycling or destruction.
- ownership management, which is important information about an object, who owns it, who owned it, the secure management of a transfer of ownership. We can also look at the preservation of integrity: is this object as it was when it was sold or bought?
- Interactivity and experience: This is done through a mobile application to make the experience simple and fun, without being aware of the very complex engineering.
We work almost exclusively with luxury goods to date, and can provide our clients with a complete service from a customised cloud environment to specific mobile applications whether at the manufacturing, retail, shop or end-customer level.
What was it like to start the company?
When we started, we deliberately did not have a clear roadmap, only what was written in our articles of association: the functionalization of materials. We focused more on implementing the skills of the founders, who wanted to test things together without having a project that was too well defined. We were more in the ‘brainstorming’ phase. We worked on a few projects before arriving at this one. For example, we created a patented 3D cellulose moulding system. This was something quite new at the time and we see that it is a need that is developing. We also started making low-cost 3D scanners for objects.
It took us about two years to find our way and develop the ‘Solid Media Messaging’ platform.
Our strength lies in our technical knowledge, we are first and foremost a company of engineers, with experience, so we are able to deal with many problems related to industry, processes and technological innovation.
Why did you choose Neuchâtel to set up and develop?
Our parent company is based in Savoie and we rapidly gained Swiss customers. The industrial dynamic in neighbouring Switzerland is much greater than in France. An important part of our sales are turnover in Switzerland, so it was natural for us to open our branch there. A friend introduced us to Mr Thierry Baglan of the GGBa network and we selected three potential cantons for our branch: the cantons of Vaud, Geneva and Neuchâtel.
The canton of Neuchâtel was in a very interesting position for our activity, as it is an industrial canton with specific skills in watchmaking, micromechanics and the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, we wanted to stay in the French-speaking part for convenience, as the canton is close to the German-speaking part and only two hours from our bases in Savoie.
The dynamics of the team at the Service de l’économie made everything simple and guided. We really felt helped and supported. Microcity also played a decisive role by providing us with office space and helping us to set up quickly and start up with confidence.
Who are your main customers and competitors at the moment? Authentication applications, especially for luxury goods, are in fashion and other companies have to work on the same problem.
We started our interview by giving you a demonstration of our mobile application for e-recognition and unitary authentication of a timepiece to show you that our technology is applied and functional.
As far as our customers are concerned, they are mainly luxury brands. We can mention HUBLOT SA who issued a press release about our collaboration in November 2020. It uses our technology in the context of the Hublot e-warranty for its entire sales network and also for its end customers (https://www.hublot.com/fr-fr/news/hublot-e-warranty ).
For the first time, during the 2022 edition of the Watches&Wonders trade fair, this same customer used our technology as part of its Hublot e-warranty when launching the acquisition of an NFT (non-fungible token) secured by, among other things, the unitary recognition of a timepiece (https://www.hublot.com/fr-fr/news/hublot-launches-two-nfts-takashi-murakami ).
The subject of authentication has interested people for a very long time and when we talk about competition, it is important to specify the application and the technical means. We have a strong desire never to compete with our clients, which explains why we have not become operators of our own blockchain, for example. We are partners of brands and we willingly disappear in their communication. We have no desire to date to be visible to the general public on the subject of authentication or recognition of luxury products. Depending on whether we are talking about traceability, property management or other areas, the competitors are very different, as are the technical solutions proposed: it can be laser engraving, a chemical tag, a simple barcode, etc.
As far as we know, in the luxury goods sector, the maturity and adaptability of our technological solutions and services are well ahead of any competition.
You mentioned that you are working on applications for the general public, could you tell us more?
In addition to our current activity, we are interested in using our messaging capabilities to offer it to the general public, who will be able to exchange messages via any physical medium. We launched studies with an anthropologist about three years ago in order to understand the human nature of their relationship with objects and to try to enrich it through technology. Let’s take the example of a gift received at a given moment; when we see it a year later, it allows us to remember the person who gave it to us, on what occasion, under what conditions, etc. It is our biological memory that is at work. We propose to use this natural trigger effect of objects with any type of message and digital information.
How do you perceive and experience innovation in your company?
Working on innovative subjects is fascinating as well as exhausting, because we are constantly projecting ourselves into the future, into the uncertain and confronting the risks of mistakes and their consequences. However we also find that the more we invest in innovation, repeatedly and over a long period of time, the better we are at managing the uncertainty and risk part. Our daily motivation is to see our customers take ownership of our technology and create use cases that we have not necessarily thought of. It is precisely at this point, when the technology becomes as transparent as it is useful for our client, that we have reached our goal as engineers.
How do you see your company in 5-10 years?
Projecting ourselves as an independent technology company is difficult. The technology we have developed has the potential to become the reference in the field of augmented authentication, and we are working towards that goal. Personally, we will still be innovating and developing in all likelihood. Our fuel is to innovate and try to develop products and services five years ahead of time that will be a must-have. We develop more in techno-push mode than in market-pull mode. We are always trying to read the future first from a technological point of view and to be able to assess whether this new technological approach has something to offer to potential markets.
In your opinion, what aspects could the canton still work on in order to improve its attractiveness to companies?
Everything has been perfect for us, so we can’t tell you how the canton of Neuchâtel could improve. We are therefore very grateful to the canton and the relationship we have been able to have with the economic department has been very much appreciated. We have received quality support, which is continuing even after our set up.