Brillens Medical is a start-up created by four alumni of the Executive MBA at HEC Lausanne. Thanks to their entrepreneurial spirit, the company originally targeting the eyewear market, is now actively involved in the fight against COVID-19 in Switzerland.
The idea behind Brillens Medical was born within the Executive MBA programme classrooms at HEC Lausanne. The start-up was conceived as part of the Entrepreneurship Project, an Executive MBA module oriented to enhance the participants’ entrepreneurial mindset and capabilities.
During their studies at HEC Lausanne, Olivier Richoz had the idea to establish a company with the goal of changing the eyewear business in Switzerland. With Bastien Machi’s established business contacts in China this task seemed feasible. Not an easy task one might say, but from a lightbulb moment in a classroom to the definitive realisation the step was short – even though, not without difficulty.
Ready, set… Stop!
After a change in the team’s composition, the EMBA graduates were further building their supply chain in Asia to be able to source high-quality eyewear at a fair price when the COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency.
“The first impact on our start-up was that we had to cancel our business trip to China in early February”, explains Bastien Machi, co-founder of Brillens Medical. Unfortunately, that was only the first tangible consequence of a crisis that would last for a while.
At that time, the virus was still confined to Asia and the idea that the outbreak would soon reach European borders was rarely contemplated. However, consistent with the company values, the team tried to help their partners in Asia as much as they could.
“We furnished our partners with hundreds of FFP2 face masks to help them stay healthy. Ironically, it was not long after that the tide turned: soon it was us who was in direct need of such equipment”, Bastien reflects.
From inaction to… reaction
With China in lockdown, the market launch for Brillens Medical eyewear solution had of course to be postponed.
“And then it went really fast: the lockdown in Italy, and suddenly Switzerland, too, was in the middle of it all. We had to cancel another business trip, this time to Milan, and were joking that it seemed that fate did not want us to succeed”, reflects Markus Williner, one of the co-founders.
Not all evil comes to harm after all because, in these uncertain times, the young start-up succeeded in generating its first ever revenue. One of the founders was contacted by a procurement specialist at a Swiss university hospital. As Markus explains, “The request was simply whether thanks to our contacts in Asia we could help them source vital PPE supplies.”
Not an easy task for the team, since PPE supplies had become a rare commodity in just a couple of months, especially for professionals in the healthcare sector.
Turning a problem into an opportunity
“Of course, we wanted to help Switzerland and do our duty to help our health professionals any way we could” the team explains. Indeed, the founders also saw this as an opportunity to pursue an idea we had kept dormant for a later stage.
What followed were intense weeks for the team at Brillens Medical, with hours and hours of phone calls – often during the night – in order to source reliable suppliers, perform independent quality control and find the best transport routes to prevent the goods from being seized.
Those weeks of hard-work and sleepless nights, however, finally paid off and Brillens Medical succeeded in sourcing, testing and providing vital protective suits, face masks, surgical gowns, gloves and other protective equipment for their first customer. In a situation of shortage of PPE supplies as never seen before both by Switzerland and Europe, it is not surprising that other customers outside the health sector followed, some of them even abroad.
Quality over pricing
In a difficult market characterised by shortages of raw material for PPE manufacturing and insane price increases, the young start-up managed to deliver several million pieces of protective equipment in the first months of the COVID-19 crisis. “We did this without compromising on quality or price or falling victim to dubious business practices ” said Olivier who is also a surgeon, besides being one of the co-founders.
“We do not care about volumes or margins” the team admits, “we just took care of covering our risks.” Of course, compared to large scale markets and distributors, the role played by Brillens Medical might not have changed the course of history in the fight to the COVID-19, but in a specific moment, it has undoubtedly helped those who were in great need of vital PPE supplies.
“Albeit small on a global scale, our contribution fills us with gratitude, for having been given the chance to help.” Olivier says. But we are convinced that, behind this story, for the young start-up there is much more than that.
The right Entrepreneurial mindset at the right time.
At the moment, the team at Brillens Medical is offering COVID-19 antibody tests and testing services to health professionals, companies and individuals, to soften the enormous blow COVID-19 is having on our lives and the economy at large. After independent cross-checks and regulatory approval the team is ready for the next venture.
Even though the original purpose of Brillens Medical – the eyewear business – has been momentarily put on hold, the team has been able to react and look for opportunities in a market that was changing because of COVID-19.
The Executive MBA programme at HEC has given the team the tools, not only to create a start-up, but especially to seek for solutions in an exceptional situation.
“The path to becoming an entrepreneur is never easy, but we enjoy (almost) every moment of it. As life-long learners, we see the opportunities.“
“We are grateful every day that we chose this particular EMBA programme.” all founders agree, “It has honed our skills, enlarged our aspirations and brought us in contact with like-minded exceptional people.”
To acquire an entrepreneurial mindset is very often what participants entering the programme want. Of course, the process of becoming a business leader will not be easy even after an Executive MBA. However, the programme gives participants a solid body of knowledge in finance, marketing, operations management and entrepreneurship that will help professionals to change course and set sail to a new career.
You can learn more about Brillens Medical here: