Dr Théodore Besson

In parallel with a thesis at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, Théodore Besson has built a consulting company in environmental management and co-founded a start-up on the development of technologies related to the preparation of human exploration of space.

Between Earth and Space, research and entrepreneurship, he shares with us his experience on how to juggle several worlds and bring them together.



What is your current position?

I am the director of a start-up that I co-founded, ESTEE (Earth Space Technical Ecosystem Enterprises SA). ESTEE's mission is to facilitate both sustainable life on Earth and human exploration of space. In my opinion, the development of life support systems in space has a driving role to play for the implementation of sustainability, and a more circular economy, from the perspective of industrial ecology.

At the same time, I am a lecturer at the EPFL, at the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), in the framework of the teaching unit "Living on Mars". Students from three sections (architecture, civil engineering, environmental science) have the task of designing a support system for a planetary base on Mars, distributing different roles according to their interests and skills. The design of the base must not be too greedy in materials, the mass to be embarked being the limiting factor of the long-duration missions. They must exploit the available resources in an optimal way. It is very formative and stimulating to project oneself in this kind of conditions, completely "foreign". During my training, I was also a teacher in parallel to my bachelor and master degrees – both at the primary-secondary level, and to prepare students for the UNIL exams –, to support myself, but also because teaching has always been a passion for me.

Which path led you to your present position?

Basically, I am a biologist. I did my master's degree in the biochemistry department at UNIL, a very competitive laboratory, with visionary and brilliant people (and workaholics!). But for me, who was not primarily attracted by an academic career, this environment was not professional enough.

So I wanted to combine my passion for life with the environment, in a more concrete training. EPFL offered an attractive MAS program in environmental sciences, engineering and management. During this postgraduate course, I was able to approach many aspects: life cycle analysis, waste management, environmental legislation, ecotoxicology, etc. This professional training also allowed me to become an auditor in ISO 14 000 (environmental management certification) and ISO 9 000 (quality management certification) and to write a report in a cantonal environmental service.

While looking for a funding for my PhD, I founded a consulting company in environmental management and industrial ecology (STEM conseil). In my consulting work, I have accompanied public and private organizations in their implementation of good environmental management practices (notably in the framework of the SwissEnergy City program).

At the time, how did you choose to pursue a PhD at FGSE? What motivated you to do so?

Personal curiosity! At the end of my postgraduate studies, I discovered the work of Suren Erkman, who had just been appointed to the UNIL. A biologist by training, he also followed a non-academic path – a former science journalist and consultant - before joining UNIL in 2005. I read his book Vers une écologie industrielle, which I found absolutely fascinating: it combined perspectives on the functioning of nature and the improvement of industrial systems. This theme was a revelation to me. It was very close to my heart, as it matched my skills and professional aspirations. I gave it a try, I met Professor Erkman to set up projects with him, including a PhD that would allow me to combine my knowledge. From the start, my goal was not to pursue an academic career. I wanted to go to the end of a subject that I am passionate about, in the framework of an original PhD work, and with a strong multidisciplinary orientation.

We did not find an immediate funding solution, but the prospect of collaborating with the European Space Agency on the theme of artificial closed ecosystems interested the UNIL rectorate. So I was first hired as a research fellow, before formally starting a PhD as an assistant-doctoral student. My mission was to identify possible synergies between the preparation of missions to Mars and research at UNIL – and in other universities and engineering schools in French-speaking Switzerland – whose activities seem a priori disconnected from space. Thanks to this work, UNIL has joined a consortium around these themes. It was very motivating to succeed in federating the community around captivating subjects such as space life support systems.

What was the focus of your doctoral research and how does it relate to your current work?

I worked (and am still working) on the convergence of two main research areas – industrial ecology and life support systems (thesis abstract on Geoblog). The idea is to make research from both worlds interact.

Concretely, if a solution to recycle urine is developed for extreme space conditions, there are direct terrestrial applications: for example, in the design of separating toilets, as at EPFL, where urine is recycled as fertilizer. Conversely, ecotoxicological methods for diagnosing the state of water, from bacteria to toxins, and technologies for monitoring human health could also be transferred to space.

More generally, the crew preparing on Earth for a space mission has every interest in getting used to life in a closed environment – with an artificial closed ecosystem, a sort of mini biosphere – by training in a ground simulator whose door is closed for several months (traditional Mars mission scenarios generally last 1,000 days). The great thing about this kind of demonstrator is that we are pushed to master almost all exposures on living beings (or the "exposome"). We know exactly what people eat, we can follow the evolution of their microbiota, the health of plants and the composition of the indoor atmosphere, etc. The studies in these simulators thus touch many fields of research: genomics, metabolomics, biogeosciences, psychology, microtechnology, telemedicine... For my part, I am particularly interested in mapping aspects related to industrial ecology ("life cycle", material balances), to life sciences, to information and communication technologies and finally to the aspect of enclosed, sustainable, healthy and self-sufficient habitats.

On the other hand, the micro-habitat in which humans evolve in autarky over prolonged periods can be seen as the minimal unit of a habitat, as the cell would be the unit of life. The functions of an artificial closed ecosystem (photosynthesis, respiration, oxidation, carbon and nitrogen cycles, to name but a few), and therefore the flows (water, air, waste), unfold on a small scale and in an accelerated manner compared to traditional natural ecosystems. What still interests me today is that it is possible to extrapolate and apply these results on a larger scale, such as that of a large building, an industrial site, or even a city or a territory.

When you look back on your career, what reflections do you have?

From the beginning of my thesis, I was working in parallel as a freelance environmental management consultant, and then in an innovation consulting firm. A few years passed (I was only working 50% as PhD assistant!), and Prof. Erkman introduced me to someone who found my research topic exciting and who had the capacity and willingness to finance a company. So I seized this opportunity and co-founded ESTEE with him.

At the beginning of my thesis, juggling several jobs was a daily challenge. The stress can sometimes come from two sides at the same time! It is also not easy to finish a thesis while working... and having a family (my two children were 9 and 11 years old when I defended my PhD!). My professional choices obviously had an impact on my PhD, which was spread out over time. But it is worth it, because it allows for mutual fertilization. I learned to develop synergies, at all levels. For example, I have implemented joint projects between my research at UNIL and my start-up, by integrating the themes of calls from the European Space Agency. A PhD work can thus be combined and enhanced by an entrepreneurial project developed in parallel.

What skills are essential to your current business?

Creating a company means finding premises, hiring and training staff, developing partnerships and marketability in the long term... and maintaining this over time. During a PhD, you also have to know how to seize opportunities that you can't necessarily plan for, and be aware of the organization that this implies, and of certain long-term consequences that you can't necessarily identify right away. You also have to be able to free up time, sometimes make sacrifices, and ultimately be tenacious! But it is clearly worth it when the theme is inspiring on a daily basis and over time!

Interview published on May 1, 2023.

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