From PhD project to successful business– Infotron founder Felienne Hermans tells her story

Felienne Hermans is proof that it’s possible to start a successful company while still a student. Set up two years ago, Netherlands-based Infotron is not only generating revenue, it can count among its customers impressive names such as PWC, ING and KLM. The concept is brilliantly simple but powerful: Infotron analyses Excel spreadsheets so that companies can reduce the risk and cost that hidden errors can cause.

Like many successful start-ups, Infotron combines the vital ingredients of: a great idea; a strong team; and making the most of networking and useful contacts. Infotron’s story started with Felienne’s PhD project at Delft University, co-sponsored by Microsoft and Avanade. Felienne chose to focus her research on ways in which use of spreadsheets can be improved. Says Felienne, “It is estimated that 88% of spreadsheets contain an error, yet they support strategic decisions in over 90 per cent of businesses.”

Felienne – who has been experimenting with computer technology since she was eight – developed software that analyses spreadsheets and then, most importantly, visualises the dependencies within those spreadsheets. In essence, the software (which is built on the Microsoft stack) makes hard-to-find errors visible and easier for enterprises to then address.

The response to her idea was immediate.  “As part of my PhD, I created a prototype for Rabobank and they loved it so much they said they wanted to buy it, as soon as possible! So, I talked to my supervising professor, who has himself been an entrepreneur and could see the business potential. We decided to create a company, together with another professor at the university, with myself as the majority shareholder. The university doesn’t have the software rights, but the agreement is that we will fund an additional PhD research student, again focused on spreadsheet development.”

Since then, Infotron has gone from strength to strength, attracting some of the biggest brand names in Europe and earning Felienne around 100,000 Euros in just two years: not bad for a student! “It has sometimes been a struggle juggling my PhD workload with growing a business, but I just finished my PHD, four months ahead of schedule.  So, it’s possible.”

Felienne attributes some of Infotron’s early success to the support received from Microsoft. “The local team has been very supportive.  We are part of BizSpark, so we benefit from free access to technology, but Microsoft has also given us technical and business advice, helped with market visibility and making useful connections. For instance, we were named as one of the top ten BizSpark companies in the Netherlands and invited to events, including ‘speed-dating’ with potential customers. That one event led to current discussions with a major pharmaceutical company, which has become our biggest client.”

So what’s next for Infotron? The company is about to appoint a CEO, someone with many years’ experience and who Felienne feels will have the expertise to work with an increasingly high-profile customers.  Felienne has decided that while she has enjoyed the past two years, her heart lies with research, so she is about to become assistant professor for her department at Delft University.  She is also passionate about helping other females explore the potential that science and technology has to offer.

“When I started university, there were only two women among about 150 freshmen.  In my dissertation, I said that this has to change and I believe that it is the attitude of teachers and parents is one of the issues.  We need it to become normal for girls to study science and computing.  I’m part of a group of female entrepreneurs that goes into schools and busts some of the myths about computer science.  We explain to girls that it is about helping to solve real problems and doesn’t have to mean sitting in a computer room all day.   We also need more female technology role models.”

That is most certainly true and Felienne Hermans is one of them. With her determination, hard work and approach to life, she is truly inspirational, not just to other women, but to the whole next generation of entrepreneurs.

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