Author: Andreas Schiendorfer
Published: Nov. 11, 2010

Four Fingers Linking Worlds

The bridge that links the virtual world of social networks and the real world has a new name: Poken. Will we be shaking hands with four fingers from now on?

What do author Ilma Rakusa, young entrepreneur Stéphane Doutriaux, and TV presenter Michelle Hunziker have in common? No idea? In a 2009 list of up-and-coming talent published by the Zurich "Sonntags-Zeitung" newspaper, they ranked 26th to 28th. Amidst numerous politicians, athletes, media figures, show business personalities and financial experts, there are only a few representatives of Swiss industry – Jasmin Staiblin, CEO of ABB, Philippe Gaydoul, CEO of Navyboot, and Franz Humer, Chairman of the Board of Roche. So there must be something special about Stéphane Doutriaux and his electronic calling card, Poken. Evidence of this comes from the various prizes and awards Poken has received in the last two years. Most recently, at the end of June, it was granted the coveted CTI Certified label from the Swiss Confederation’s Innovation Promotion Agency (CTI).

Breakthrough Achieved 

The trail leads us to Lausanne: Not to a big modern office complex in an industrial park, but right to the city's historical center. It's somewhat reminiscent of Microsoft founder Bill Gates messing around in his garage. But here we are on the third floor in an apartment which, after having been remodeled to accommodate 15 staff, is now bursting at the seams. Looking around, we can see that the company, founded at the end of 2007, has already achieved a breakthrough, symbolized by a wall with a hole in it linking the two offices. 

Another omen might well be the company's address: Rue du Pont ("Bridge Street"). Poken is indeed a bridge between the virtual and real worlds. 

We are amused to note that Doutriaux has made no attempt to hide the rough contours of the hole. Instead, it seems to celebrate the optimistic mood of the office. A sense of fun is important, he emphasized repeatedly in the course of our conversation. He has some famous role models in this respect, as Facebook and even Wikipedia started out that way, too.

Exchanging Contact Details 

What's it all about? Briefly put, Poken is a gadget that uses near field communication technology to allow users to exchange contact information. In addition to the usual details you'd find on a business card, Poken can also transfer links to profiles on different social networks, and even transfer whole documents. Because each Poken user enters and updates their own details on the computer, they can also decide how much they want to reveal about themselves while making sure their virtual partners are kept up to date on changes of address or phone numbers. Exchanging data is easy – all you need to do is touch your four-fingered Poken hand to the other person's.


Retail Market Not Top Priority 

The first Poken gadgets came onto the market in January 2009 styled as comic figures, including a panda, a bee, Frankenstein's monster, a red dragon and a tiger. If it should ever happen that communities from the various social networks, especially Facebook, all converge on Poken, the young Swiss company would be rolling in business. But for this to occur, numbers would have to exceed a critical mass. At present Poken users can't assume that their counterparts will have Poken too. So the technology needs to spread, and quickly. 

How many Poken have been sold so far? Stéphane Doutriaux doesn't cite any figures, but Poken is already available in around 50 countries, and is attracting a tremendous amount of interest, especially in Asia, the US and even in Africa. "The retail market is not a priority for us right now," emphasizes the young entrepreneur. "Our success is based on closed communities."

Many Famous Companies Use Poken 

Many companies, including BMW, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, are using Poken at events so that participants can introduce themselves to each other and link up. The jeans of the “in” brand Angel & Devil are also equipped with a Poken. A special business version of Poken has been developed for this purpose which is somewhat more discreet in design. It can be decorated with a corporate logo, and also contains a memory stick. Giving everyone an (inexpensive) Poken can, for example, really break the ice at a drinks party, where guests can simply touch gadgets rather than exchange business cards. And instead of collecting and lugging around piles of printed documentation at product presentations, you can save it quickly, in an environmentally friendly way, using a Poken contact.

Alone on the Market for Now 

Over the last two years competitors with similar products appeared on the market. "They've all disappeared already because we had a decisive head start on them in terms of technological expertise," explains Stéphane Doutriaux. "Now it's a matter of taking advantage of our good situation. On the one hand, we want to develop new products, for example a Poken in an ID-card format, but we also want to break into new markets, and of course intensify sales efforts in our key markets."

To facilitate this rapid growth, Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. is supporting the Lausanne company as an additional investor.