Magazine article Information Today

A Happy Accident: Interview with Pierre Buffet

Magazine article Information Today

A Happy Accident: Interview with Pierre Buffet

Article excerpt

Pierre Buffet, executive vice president of online host Questel*Orbit, is a rare animal. After 30 years in the industry, he is one of the few early pioneers still at his desk. And despite his low profile, Buffet remains an influential figure. He was duly recognized at Online Information 2001, where he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Q: You started out in the French navy, specializing in deep-sea diving. How did you end up in the online industry?

A: You've just looked at the first line of my CV [curriculum vitae]! I spent 18 months in the French Navy, doing my military service in operational research. Subsequently, I became head of the computer department at the Documentation Centre of CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research. There I was responsible for the creation of the PASCAL database, a multidisciplinary bibliographic database of scientific and technical literature.

Q: In 1979, you co-founded the online host Questel. This was an initiative of the French Ministry of Research, and the contract was given to Telesystemes, a subsidiary of France Telecom. What was the logic for creating Questel?

A: It was a political decision. Like most Western countries at the time, France wanted to provide information for its scientific community. The aim was to offer a French service for French organizations. In addition, it was intended to use the service as a vehicle for a revolutionary new technology called DARC. Developed in French universities, DARC enables the searching of CAS chemical structures.

Q: As you say, similar services were set up in most European countries: InfoLine in the U.K.; 16 national servers in Germany; and ESA-IRS, created by the European Space Agency in 1965 as a pan-European online host. Apart from a few remaining German services such as FIZ Karlsruhe, DIMDI, and FIZ Technik, most have subsequently disappeared. What was special about Questel that has allowed it to survive?

A: I'm not very happy with the word "survive." We are alive and very healthy.

Q: That's my point. Many of the others didn't survive. Why did Questel?

A: It was a happy accident. It was not our original plan to focus on intellectual property, but we soon realized that while people were prepared to pay over $1 a page to receive faxes of important patents, they weren't prepared to pay for a scientific paper. So we decided to enter the intellectual property market, and thanks to excellent relationships with the French patent office and subsequently with other patent offices, we were soon able to develop a strong presence.

Q: What have been the most important milestones for Questel?

A: The first milestone was in 1980, when global customers like the USPTO and major Japanese corporations started using the DARC service. The second important milestone was in 1984, when we began distributing the Derwent World Patents Index file. And then in 1989-along with Bertelsmann and an Italian company-we developed and implemented the Epoque search system for internal use in the European Patent Office [EPO].

The EPO is the most advanced patent office in terms of online searching, so it is quite something for us that its in-house system is based on our technology. In fact, it's the most successful patent office system ever created and is now used by over 4,000 patent officers each day.

Q: And in 1994, Questel bought its main U.S. rival, Orbit, to become Questel*Orbit?

A: Right. That brought us two important new benefits. Firstly, Orbit's customer base was very complementary. Where we were at that time a major player in continental Europe, Orbit was a big player in the Anglo-Saxon world. And where we were wellplaced in the fine chemistry arena-including the pharmaceutical and agrochemicals markets-Orbit had always been strong in the petroleum and refated areas. Secondly, bringing together an American culture with a European culture turned out to be a wonderful combination, and continues to be. …

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