Diaspo #250: Khalid Zahouily, a CNRS photochemist turned entrepreneur

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In the 2000s, Khalid Zahouily decided to set up his business in France. While he was a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), he knew nothing about the world of entrepreneurship and had no idea how to negotiate with customers or market his product. Almost 20 years later, the Moroccan, doctor in photochemistry, is today at the head of a private laboratory recognized for its efficiency and its spirit of innovation. Born in 1961 in Casablanca, in the neighborhood of Ain Chock, he joined the famous Khawarizmi institute located on the boulevard La Gironde, thanks to his mother. “I couldn’t read or write. However, I had done everything for me and my brother – who had become a neurosurgeon – to join this school,” says Khalid Zahouily. So, after high school in mathematical sciences, he opted for preparatory classes in France. He went to Orleans for two years of post-baccalaureate studies before joining the School of Chemistry in Mulhouse. On choosing this sector, Khalid Zahouily has a funny story. “We lived near the SNRT facility in Ain Chock. I was passionate about potions, potions and chemistry,” he says. At just ten years old, he took advantage of Fridays without class for a little special treasure hunt. “With friends, we went to the empty lots in Casablanca. I used to collect expired medicines and mix things up”, he recalls. Like a “true chemist”, the young man wrote everything down in a small notebook. “We lit a small fire to boil the mixtures”, he explains. “My dream was to create a magic potion. I poured these mixtures on the plants and returned the following Friday hoping to find giant trees. In the end, when I arrived, the poor plants were dead.” Khalid Zahouily Scientist turned in entrepreneurship In 1994, he finally realized his childhood dream, obtaining his doctorate in photochemistry at the University of Alsace. He then worked for ten years at the CNRS. It is thanks to this experience that he perfected his experience in photopolymer materials and worked with the requests of major Japanese and American companies.Head of the “Valorization” unit, he studies the links between science and industry and how to meet the needs of manufacturers in the field of photopolymers, such as paints, varnishes and materials. Then life seems like a long calm river. But in 1998-1999, a big grain of sand when he received a call from a large company specializing in flooring polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which had just applied a light-curing varnish to its light-curing product but had a photochemical problem. with this varnish. Called to go to Lyon with the company the next day, Khalid Zahouily faces the bureaucracy. “My superior authorized me to go, but the regional director told me that he could not take the risk of letting me go because the mission assignment had not been filled in time, while it was a possible contract for the laboratory”, he explains. But the Moroccan researcher is not resigned, taking a day off to go it alone. He returns with a contract of 20,000 euros for the laboratory. But this experience highlights the gap between the academic world and the industrial sector. In 2001, the French government decreed a law that allowed researchers to create their own companies, use CNRS equipment while keeping part of their salary and above all benefit from support. This is the trigger for Khalid Zahouily, even if he has little knowledge of entrepreneurship. “He was definitely a chemist, but he didn’t know what a business or marketing plan was. Fortunately, I was supervised by great specialists”, he acknowledges. His choice turned out to be the right one, because today, Photon Polymers, created 20 years ago, is a leader in the field of photopolymer materials. Its private laboratory specially develops high-level coatings that can be applied to various products. “For example, anti-graffiti varnishes for the RATP, photopolymerizable inks against counterfeiting, bio-based anti-corrosion varnishes for watch faces for the Swiss watchmaking industry,” he explains. Photopolymers and 3D and 4D printing According to its founder, Photon Polymers was even consulted by the Central Bank of Morocco to prevent premature wear of banknotes by applying a specific varnish, although this project did not materialize. Recently, the lab developed an anti-freeze UV ​​varnish and submitted five patents to Airbus Industries that required three years of work. “Since airplanes have existed, there have been 500 spits due to the accumulation of ice on the wings, which is called ice. Our varnish prevents this ice from sticking to the surface of the aircraft,” he explains the chemist. The company, although it remains “a small structure”, according to its founder, enjoys a portfolio of clients as famous as they are demanding: Airbus, Rolex, Gucci, Lafarge,… The innovation that is at the heart of the company. The industrial strategy allows it to target other equally demanding high-tech sectors. “For five years, the future of Photon Polymers has turned decisively towards the medical field, in through 3D and 4D printing. Printing of organ parts (a mixture of bio-photopolymers and living cells), or orthodontic splints, is the future. We develop advanced custom photopolymer materials for the stereolithography technique (or SLA). Khalid Zahouily Le Marocain is also one of the founders of the Meet France-Morocco association, with French managers co-Moroccans in Alsace. “I chair the “Research and Scientific Development” division. I work to stimulate development and innovation in the various scientific fields, support entrepreneurship, economic development and the creation of innovative companies,” he explains about this NGO that brings together managers, engineers, university professors, all in love with Morocco. “My ambition is that researchers, especially Franco-Moroccan, Moroccan or French, work on issues such as water and energy, linked to the new development model for 2035. The idea is also to help Moroccan researchers to promote their research and purely translate science into knowledge, knowledge and maybe jobs”, he concludes hopefully.
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