Frantz Saintellemy, President and Chief Operating Officer at LeddarTech, shares how he’s using his business acumen to give back to his community and foster technological innovation.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your personal career path. What are some of the biggest moments that have shaped your journey?
Frantz Saintellemy: My background is in electrical engineering, so I started my career as a microelectronics specialist. I quickly realized I was better at building businesses when I co-founded a business unit for Analog Devices to break into the infotainment sector emerging in the automotive industry. By the time I left the company, this unit was generating 400M.
After meeting my wife and moving to Montréal, I intended to start my own business but was recruited by a well-known, successful tech entrepreneur who offered me a position first as a consultant and then as CTO of Future Electronics. I cofounded 2 businesses for Future that help generate significant revenue for the company. These businesses use new technologies to enable clean energy generation as well as increased energy efficiency.
In 2010, something profound happened: a massive earthquake hit Haiti and killed 300,000 people. I was born in Haiti, and even though I moved to Canada at the age of 7, I still have an affinity for the country. I knew so many wealthy tech entrepreneurs and felt we could do something to help, so I started calling everyone I knew. I also asked my boss if I could raise money internally; he fully supported my efforts and even promised to match whatever I raised.
I reached out to my colleagues and electronics industry friends and raised 250k, which was matched with a generous contribution by Future, helping us raise half a million. And although everyone was extremely generous, I wanted to do more. I realized that I would have that ability by making an entrepreneurial leap.
I left Future and partnered with a friend to acquire shares from an old company out of East Germany called ZMDI, which was the center for microelectronic research for the former GDR. We acquired 90% of shares for the division for microelectronics fabrication and development for the automotive space.
Acquiring a company is like buying a house. Until you live in it, you don't know the challenges. ZMDI had been earning about 30M euros in revenue, but within a year this decreased to 12M because of various challenges like foreign ownership. We had to rebuild, refinance, and refocus the company. We boosted the revenue from 12M to 80M euros in 5 years, selling it in 2015 to a semiconductor company in the Silicon Valley.
AC: You are also Co-Founder and Chairman at Groupe 3737, a philanthropic initiative. Tell us about this group and what inspired you to create it.
FS: Groupe 3737 is an incubator/accelerator that helps people from immigrant/poverty backgrounds use technology to create businesses that generate income and jobs in poorer neighborhoods. My wife and I have invested over 15M of our private money in this venture. Today it’s creating a tech hub in Montréal and is one of the most well-known incubators in the province of Quebec. We’re in the process of signing a deal with the Canadian government to create a fund to help young entrepreneurs scale their businesses.
I believe that success comes with a responsibility to help others. Without others, we’re soloists, nobodies. We come into this world naked, and we’ll leave naked. It’s important to reinvest in our environment and in people in greater need. If you make a lot of money, you can give back and still have more than enough.
AC: In our previous conversations, you alluded to the book L'Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, The Man Who Planted Trees. How has this book resonated with you and inspired your work, whether personal or philanthropic?
FS: I came across this book in elementary school and was fascinated by the story, perhaps because I’m from Haiti, and we’re mostly farmers in Haiti! This book is set in an environment that’s desolate and treeless, soulless and destroyed. It’s about one man’s desire to be more than just an observer, a man who says, “I can’t change the world, but I can change what I do to improve the world around me.”
Planting trees is like giving back. I strive for this in everything I do in life, even if it’s something small like giving a smile or asking how someone is doing. It’s the little things, not the big things, that accumulate and create something worthwhile. I invest the most valuable currency I have, my time and my money. Investing in my community and in my environment is the most rewarding thing I can do.
AC: Who are the entrepreneurs you mentor at Groupe 3737, and what are key practices you encourage them to follow to be successful?
FS: Our mentees’ industries are diverse, encompassing AI, IoT, SaaS, marketing, vlogging, food tech, and more, and they range from businesses generating millions in revenue to startups in the acceleration phase. All the services we offer are free, and our only requirement is that our entrepreneurs contribute back into the ecosystem so it can continue to sustain its momentum.
One of the biggest barriers, especially for those from immigrant backgrounds, is that they’re good at trading but typically trade only within their local communities. This makes their business difficult to scale, so we help them use tech as a multiplier. For example, we worked with a young lady who makes an artisanal Caribbean liquor. We advised her to create a standard recipe and publish it online. She started creating this liquor in her basement as a side project, and now she’s generated a couple millions in revenue from selling recipes and her liquor online.
We’re different from other incubators and accelerators in that we don’t cater to the best and brightest who are well-connected and would succeed no matter what. We cater to a culturally diverse group of people who would struggle to succeed without our help and support. Money should never be a deterrent for someone who has a good idea.
AC: Your success in mentoring businesses at Groupe 3737 is obviously a product of your own business success. LeddarTech has won CES Innovation Awards for multiple years running. To what do you attribute this success?
FS: When we look at a problem, we try to identify and address its root cause. Our business is built around a segment of the autonomous driving industry that people have been trying to address for decades. The root cause of the problem is that LiDAR solutions are large, mechanical, very expensive, not scalable, and different from one LiDAR maker to the next. You can’t have an industry that has hundreds of approaches to the same problem.
We tried to create a standard technology that could be used by most LiDAR makers, allowing them to differentiate their products while utilizing the same core tech. This addresses the cost problem, the vendor problem, and the scalability problem. We take this approach in each of our products, trying to solve a problem in a new way and create something that can be scalable.
We also hire very bright, skilled, and entrepreneurial individuals from diverse backgrounds who have different ways of looking at problems. We try not to create a framework that will force them to think like everyone else. Instead, we allow them to make mistakes and explore. We expose what the problem is and why it’s important to solve. Most people like to see the big picture, and if you create an environment where employees only see a small part of the whole picture, most smart people will give you what you want, not what you really need.
AC: What has been a highlight for you in the last few years? Was there a moment, either for you personally or for LeddarTech, that you knew you were on the right track?
FS: We are focused on our key customers and strategic partners. We’re a small company, but we’ve turned partnerships into a strength by convincing large industry players who could out-invest us to join us in our quest to solve customer problems. These players have the resources to focus on areas that aren’t our strengths, which allows us to focus on what we’re good at. If we’re successful together, we can forever change the industry.
AC: What do you look for in strategic partnerships?
FS: We look for velocity, which is to say partners who are moving in the same direction we are so that we can solve customer problems together. For instance, at CES this year, there were five large companies presenting products around our core LeddarEngine platform. We started discussions on joint collaborations, and now we have specific goals we’ve accomplished together; these partner companies are investing time and money in developing solutions that are aligned with our roadmap and our customers’ needs.
AC: What are your thoughts on partnering with staff augmentation providers that can help speed deliveries to market?
FS: Partnerships are almost never written into business plans from the outset, but they should be. What we try to focus on from the beginning is what we’re really good at. We put all of our efforts here and partner with others to supply the rest, even if it means sharing revenue, because the end product will be better. It takes time for people to realize that this is a better model, even though we do it intuitively all the time; for example, Facebook uses us as content creators and distributors, which is a money-making form of collaboration.
Our method of thinking individualistically in business can be traced back to our education, where our success is individual rather than group-oriented. We need to shift from our ingrained “survival of the fittest” thought process and understand that individual success and instant gratification mean nothing. It’s collaboration that ultimately makes us stronger. I was lucky to learn this at a young age.
AC: It’s refreshing and inspiring to speak with someone who has built their life around this philosophy. We can’t wait to see the great things that will continue to be in store for you, for Groupe 3737, and for LeddarTech!
Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.