Dr. Monique Calisti, CEO of Martel Innovate, about innovation during the pandemic.
How are you, your family, and your employees doing in the COVID-19 times?
Dr. Monique Calisti: We are doing well, despite the crazy situation. We are the lucky ones that managed to keep their jobs, keep staying connected, and in some cases, get over the virus infection, like me. Obviously, the change has been huge for all of us, at home and in the office. Suddenly, our homes became our offices, but also the school of our children, the office of our partners, the gyms we could not go to anymore. For us at Martel, a major change was the fact we stopped traveling and meeting our customers and partners as usual. We have been a nomadic team since ever, working and traveling all over Europe on a regular basis, and when the lockdown came last year, nobody could have imagined how much our lifestyle and workstyle would have changed. Being in Switzerland, we are quite fortunate, as even during the most extreme lockdown periods, we have been still allowed to walk in the nature and enjoy the great benefits of even a brief change of scenery. Being able to physically leave the house and get some fresh air has helped us all to cope with this new situation.
As CEO of Martel, my priority has been to ensure all our employees could safely work from home, and luckily this has worked well from day 1, as our business organization and infrastructure were already in place to allow remote working. Personally, this period has given me more time to think, to think strategically, and to dedicate more time to study and inject new ideas into our projects and, ultimately, our company. All the time I did not spend flying around, was gained quality time for my family and my company.
People come first, we always knew that, but with the pandemic, it has become even clearer that caring for each other is essential at home and at work. Sometimes it is not easy to inspire and motivate yourself and your colleagues through a screen, but this is a very important aspect I try to promote at Martel.
Tell us about yourself, your career, and how you joined Martel Innovate.
Dr. Monique Calisti: I am a passionate entrepreneur, always eager to learn and experiment with new ideas. I discovered my love for technology during a visit to the synchrocyclotron at CERN in Geneva when I was 17 years old. After two PhDs (one in Artificial Intelligence and one in Telecommunications Engineering) and several years as researchers in the fields of communication networks, and artificial intelligence at EPFL in Lausanne, I moved out from academia. I first joined a start-up developing AI-based enterprise software solutions as Vice-President of Research and Development that I left after more than eight years to move to Martel.
At Martel, I found my place to be. It was a small group of four people back then. I was able to stay at the forefront of research and innovation, being at work with great colleagues, as well as top partners at the national and international level, developing new business opportunities and directions for our company. Along the way, I contributed to shape and grow Martel in several directions. And as a self-made woman in tech, I’ve been through the whole palette: Project Manager, Senior Consultant, Project Coordinator, Head of Media and Consulting, CEO, and finally, the owner of Martel.
How does Martel innovate?
Dr. Monique Calisti: Our motto at Martel is “innovation, we make it happen.” And this is very much our spirit, ur motivation, and our major asset. We have developed a set of skills and defined a set of services that help researchers and innovators to make their projects and plans to become a reality. We follow the different steps of the digital innovation lifecycle. We have diversified our core consulting business – focused on EC-funded projects management – to include research and development activities, in addition to a broad palette of communication, marketing, media, and training services. Our fields of action spread across several technology domains such as Cloud, Edge, IoT, AI, 5G, etc., and cuts across several verticals such as Smart Cities, Smart Mobility, etc. About how we made innovation happen, besides the more than 100 EC research and innovation projects we’ve been involved in, I’m particularly proud of our two latest spinoffs: Orchestra Cities and Digital for Planet.
Orchestra Cities is an open-source multi-function platform allowing a broad range of IoT-enabled applications and services, including waste and water management, transportation, air quality monitoring, traffic and parking, and more, to be effectively defined, offered, and monitored. This platform has been offered commercially already, and Orchestra Cities will spinoff as a stand-alone Start-up possibly by the end of 2021.
Digital for Planet: D4P is a non-profit association that we founded last year. D4P aims at mobilizing research, innovation, and policy efforts to promote human-centered technologies and solutions for the sustainability of our planet. By supporting the development and adoption of green ICT and facilitating access to public and private funding, D4P aims to become a hub for sustainable ICT innovation. Plans for 2021 are to make it grow and walk on its own!
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources?
Dr. Monique Calisti: Fortunately, I did not have to make difficult choices regarding human resources; on the contrary, we welcomed four new colleagues to our team in the last year. The onboarding process was obviously very different and took place entirely online. We have not had a chance to meet them in person yet (with three of the new employees) and are very much looking forward to a proper, in-person team gathering.
Obviously to manage and motive people in a totally remote setting became more challenging, but more from a human/psychological point of view than in terms of organization of the work. As a matter of fact, we already had an excellent IT infrastructure in place, and most importantly, an agile mindset. Well-oiled agile processes and good tools have helped us stay engaged, focused, and productive. Despite the lockdown effects, we continued to have weekly virtual stand-up meetings with the entire team. But clearly, we are looking forward to being together again in the same office!
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Dr. Monique Calisti: Our customer relationship management evolved in the sense that we put more attention and energy into choosing the right tools and instruments to remotely coordinate, communicate and/or interact. But in a way, for us, it was easy in a sense we had already in place all instruments and tools for that. We went for some upgrades or some additional video conferencing platforms, especially for running large-scale events, but other than that, what changed was more on a soft-skills level.
Actually, I think that more than ever, this pandemic and the remote working modality has shown that the difference is made by people, by their empathy, their capacity to feel and read through a screen in a way that no tool can do. I believe the human factor is making a difference at work and home. Martel has shown its strengths in these pandemic times in this respect.
Your final thoughts?
Dr. Monique Calisti: Digital innovation has become even more clearly relevant to our business and to the whole society. Essential services can be accessed only thanks to advanced ICT solutions. However, we are analog creatures, and as such, we need to stay together, to share time, space, and experiences.
In this difficult year, once again, for us at Martel, it has been clear that our strongest asset is our team. Despite the challenging circumstances, their continued perseverance and dedication allowed our company to stay strong and even grow. Their can-do-attitude during these unique times has been nothing short of inspiring. I have always believed that open communication and collaborative culture are key for the entire team to make a valuable contribution to the organization’s success. I believe that it was one of the main factors that helped us navigate through this crisis. I am proud to say that despite the challenging year, all Martelians moved toward the same strategic goals as a united team, offering a great deal of support and empathy to one another on the way.