This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.
FLIGHT OF FANCY
If Philippe Lauper and his colleagues are successful, they’ll make history with their solar-powered plane.
Dream Jobs 2009
As a boy, Philippe Lauper loved food so much he wanted to become a chef. But around age 15, in a moment of youthful clarity, he envisioned the reality of such a life: day after day of cooking, mopping floors, and tallying receipts. The backup plan was engineering—he enjoyed reading about famous inventors—and today he finds himself managing one of the most audacious technology projects ever conceived: building a plane that can fly around the globe on sunlight alone.
Lauper was born in 1971 in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, not far from Neuchâtel. His love of food probably comes from his parents, who bought and sold organic food, an odd occupation at the time.
In 1989 he enrolled in a local university to study microtechnical engineering, later switching to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (known as EPFL, the acronym for its French name). Many of his classmates were focusing on integrated microelectronics, but Lauper concentrated on production engineering because it seemed more practical, and he preferred working on systems to designing individual components.
In 1995, fresh out of college, he sought a job where he’d have to speak a lot of English. He soon got one with the Swiss branch of Silicon Graphics, where he was charged with ensuring the quality of the components used in the Sunnyvale, Calif., company’s storage devices and sorting out any problems with the components’ suppliers. The job demanded a lot of people skills, and he found that he liked the interactions. He also got to travel and learn about American culture.
But Lauper realized he wanted more than exposure to a different culture within Switzerland: He wanted to actually live abroad. ”I picked a place where I could ally good climate and windsurfing—so a windy place—and still have a job where I would use my brain and not just sell cocktails on the beach.” Perth, Australia, filled the bill, and Lauper’s EPFL contacts helped him get a job in biomedical optics at the University of Western Australia. There his task was to help convert a refrigerator-size system for diagnosing skin cancer into a portable unit. He liked the mix of hands-on fabrication and project management. And the surfing? ”Pure fun!” he almost shouts.
After a year and a half, though, he got homesick for Switzerland, and he moved back to take a project-management and systems-engineering gig with the consulting company Altran.
Lauper first heard about the solar-plane project in 2004, when the driving forces behind it, pilot Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg, announced they would be presenting their idea at the International Exhibition of Inventions, an annual event that attracts wild-eyed inventors from around the world. Lauper took the train to Geneva to check out the project. ”You could see hundreds of inventions” at the show, he says. ”But I went for this one.”
At the time, the solar-powered plane, which is called Solar Impulse, existed only on paper. But the project was gaining momentum, and Lauper’s employer signed on as a partner. As part of the deal, Altran agreed to assign a project manager to Solar Impulse. Offered the job, Lauper leaped at the chance to work on what would certainly be one of the most challenging engineering feats of modern times.