Gautier Papon is the co-founder of Argolight, the company shipping its products into Space

In 2012, Dr Gautier Papon and Dr Arnaud Royon were interested in the issue of pharmaceutical, biotech and diagnostics companies who were using fluorescence microscopes that were not optimal and were giving skewed results. Their solution is a patented slide combined with data analysis software. This all-in-one technology represents a real time-saver for laboratories. Even the engineers at NASA have snapped it up…

Gautier, what was your initial training in, before you became involved with this type of project?
I have a scientific and technical background. I completed a Masters in science and instrumentation physics in a commercial context. I then went on to complete a PhD in physics and started Argolight. So I have a rather technical background, with a slightly commercial element to it.

What is it that your company does exactly? What is its line of business?
Argolight specialises in fluorescence monitoring and quality management. We help our customers to ensure the quality of their fluorescence microscopes. Our customers are mainly people who work in the life sciences (pharmaceutical, biological research) and who make use of imaging systems known as microscopes. And they want to make sure that these microscopes are all working correctly.

How big is the Argolight team?
Today there are 10 people in the team, plus the possible interns that we take on from time to time.

Do you ever work remotely?
We have a developer in Paris who is fully remote, and there are occasionally people who work one or two days at home when they have a specific task to perform, or when they want to be alone so as to be more efficient.

What type of task calls for remote work?
Mainly it’s the writing of scientific articles and other such documents, or the write-up of a complex analysis. In my case, it might be to draw up a business plan.

What motivated you to embark on this adventure?
Argolight is not my first experience of starting a business, but is in fact my third. The very first time was when, along with my brother and some friends, I launched a clothing brand. I was doing my undergraduate studies at the time. We would print t-shirts that were then sold at markets. We did that for 2 years. Then I moved on to website development, primarily for customers in a scientific context. By that point I already had something of an appetite for starting new businesses; it was something that interested me. It turned out that the technology I was using during my doctoral degree also lent itself well to an industrial application. So I quickly announced to my director of studies that I would be interested in starting a company to exploit this. That’s how Argolight was born.

How did you manage to find funding, select your team and start your business?
I started by convincing my friend and office colleague to become my business partner. I had the feeling that it would be too complex to get things off the ground all by myself. At the time, I didn’t realise how complex it would be to build a business out of technology hardware such as Argolight. It was a good thing I managed to convince Arnaud Royon to join me as my business partner, and Scientific and Technical Director at Argolight.
We then contacted local organisations, such as Unitech and the regional business incubator, l’Incubateur Régional d’Aquitaine, which are organisations that help innovative companies to develop. They guided and assisted us. After a year, we raised a first round of funding, and then carried out our first round of recruitment. That’s how Argolight began to grow.

Argolight was founded in December 2012. How do go about attracting new customers, 5 years after starting out?
We are working in something of a technological niche, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. That is to say, we have a very specific use case but also a fairly large market. 90% of our customers are inbound clients. These are people who find us on the Internet, via our website. They reach out to us to ask us for an estimate or assessment of their needs. The remaining 10% of our customers know about Argolight thanks to our presence at technology trade fairs.

I read on your website that you count NASA among your clients.
That’s right. NASA is certainly not our biggest customer, but by pure chance, there happens to be a microscope on the International Space Station. They were seeking a solution to the question of how to adjust this microscope. The solutions provided by Argolight’s competitors are all based on liquids — particles in a suspension in fluid. But using fluids in zero gravity is not necessarily the best solution. So the people at NASA found us on Google. We worked with them for about 18 months, and delivered a product that they sent into Space a year ago.

That’s a great success for Argolight!
Yes, we have an entire wall at Argolight with a big picture of the ISS; we’re very proud of it. Clearly, that collaboration is not what defines our business, but many of us have a technical training and so Space is really something that fires our imaginations. Even for people who are less technical, being able to say that they work for a company that sends its product to Space makes things more interesting right away.

What are the next objectives for Argolight?
Since creating Argolight, we’ve maintained a growth rate of 80% per year. That was easy in our early days, but is less so today. The goal is to maintain this growth rate. It’s a rhythm at which we like working. In the end, we are not looking to change how we work, but the stakes are becoming increasingly important. We’re hiring; we’re building things. But from the outset Argolight has had aims of global reach and high growth rates in its DNA. Argolight is designed to grow and increase in breadth. Not much needs to be changed in order to keeping having that 80% growth rate year on year.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced so far? How did you overcome them?
The main challenges that we have encountered are part of human nature and concern management. How do you manage a team of 10 or so people when they are all working on different projects? How do you manage the morale of that team so that people from different backgrounds work well together and are happy at Argolight? Some of our employees have enviable profiles and we want to hold on to them, but we are not in a position to offer stupendous salaries to ensure that they stay. So we have to give meaning to their work and pay attention to the atmosphere at the company, to ensure that they stay happy and proud to work for Argolight.
As soon as there is a problem or difficulty, instinctively employees look to management. It is up to us to show that there is a sense of justice, and that the rules are the same for everyone at Argolight. The main difficulty as the company grows is knowing when not to intervene. Initially as director you are involved in everything. That’s to be expected, because you are present in the very foundations of the project. But as the company grows and gets older, it’s important to leave room to other members of the company as they gain new skills and indeed have been recruited for this purpose. Finding a way to help by participating in a colleague’s thought process, without actually seeming to impose a solution, is somewhat tricky when you also hold the position of leader.

What has helped you in your project?
I’m a very optimistic person! I would also describe myself as patient and ambitious. If someone were to say to me, ‘At Argolight there are ten of you, will you grow to 200 employees tomorrow?’, my answer would be ‘Yes’. Step by step, we’ll get there. It’s precisely that spirit that, from the start, has allowed us to group together people with similar profiles. I am surrounded by people who generally have a very positive outlook. It’s the team and the group dynamic that make Argolight a success, rather than something that I have put in place.

What advice would you give to those who are embarking on creating a company?
Do not start out alone. Ideally there should be three partners, to balance things. Nowadays there are so many concepts about how to create a business. You have to try to detach yourself from all that. Don’t focus on how it’s done in the United States. A company needs to make money, which means it needs clients, which in turn means it needs to have good products. How do you go about finding the right products? You have to listen to your customers. It’s not complicated to do; it’s just difficult. I love that sentence: It’s not complicated; it’s just difficult.

Interview realized by Floriane Fontaine & translated by Emily Fiennes for Muxu.Muxu. ✨