Europe’s new research élite

Research and risk-taking have gone hand-in-hand in Europe since 2007. The European Research Council (ERC) supports scientists for a period of up to five years through three different types of grants that award up to €2.5 million per project. In addition, a €150,000 subsidy is available to explore the commercial potential of a scientific finding (Proof of concept). The grants are funded through the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation (the current one is known as Horizon 2020).

Unlike the majority of funding schemes awarded by the Framework Programmes, these grants are not bound by any thematic priorities. ERC Vice President Eva Kondorosi explains: “For the first time ever there is real competition in Europe among the research talent, which has generally raised the quality of research.” The numbers tell the story: since the ERC’s founding, 7,000 research projects have been funded. According to the first assessment carried out in 2015, more than 70% of these projects have produced significant results. Six ERC-supported scientists have won Nobel Prizes, and a further three Fields Medals. The fact that the ERC has no thematic priorities gives Europe a long-term competitive advantage over the US, argues Daniel Cremers, professor of Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition at the Technical University of Munich (see profile). “Whereas one out of four PhD students in my group is working on deep learning, it is generally four out of four for my US colleagues,” he says. “Over there, research applications for less ’hot’ topics are frequently turned down. In my opinion, this extreme concentration is leading to a loss of diversity and methodological approach.”

The ERC’s system does have one weak point: it favours the traditional science nations. Over 90% of the grants go to researchers from the older EU members, with eastern European countries generally coming away empty-handed. One way of letting these countries benefit from this funding is through networking. “We have set up Fellowship Programmes in which ERC candidates can undertake short research visits with current grant-holders,” says Kondorosi. She acknowledges, however, that this does not go far enough. “It is up to national governments to invest in basic research and infrastructure. Subsidies from Europe can only play a supporting role.” The ERC’s annual budget now stands at €1.6 billion. The following stories show how these grants support ground-breaking research.

The chip revolution


Every transmitted signal is subject to interference. To ensure that the recipient actually receives the correct information, redundancy is built into the transmission. So, as with balanced signal transmission, parallel-running cables are used to split interference signals between both conductors. With digital data transmission, error correction codes are added. Hoping to improve these codes, mathematician Amin Shokrollahi from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, launched an ambitious research project in 2009. He and his team have built an efficient model for balanced signal transmission. Using a special code, for example, it is possible to split eight bits among eight signal conductors (instead of 16), but with the same robustness.

These results laid the foundation for the Kandou Bus start-up in 2011. “The name means ’beehive’ in Persian and reflects the technology we use,” Shokrollahi explains. “The hive’s yield depends on how the bees collaborate inside. In our case, it’s the interaction between the signals that determines the quality of the output.” This technology allows for quicker data transmission between chips and uses less energy. With the amount of data exchanged worldwide doubling every 18 months, this young company has huge potential. “In the future no smartphone, tablet or computer will be able to do without us”, he predicts. Last year Kandou Bus received $15 million from a US venture capital company. In the meantime, the start-up has opened offices in the US, UK and Germany, in addition to its headquarters in Lausanne.

Amin Shokrollahi

2008: Advanced Grant  / 2011: Proof of Concept

Trojan Horse against cancer


In Europe, one person dies of cancer every 30 seconds. One of the main reasons is that only 1% or 2% of the anti-cancer agents administered through chemotherapy actually reach cancer cells; the rest go to other organs, creating often unpleasant side-effects. Magdalena Król of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences hopes to use her research to make drugs more effective. “I’ve discovered a mechanism by which immune cells can convey special proteins,” she explains. “These proteins have a box-like structure which can be filled with anti-cancer drugs. Just like a Trojan Horse, the immune cells work their way along to the tumour and empty out the active substances which kill the cancer cells.”

Król’s trials show that up to 30% of the immune cells reach the tumour. Thus, a smaller amount of anti-cancer agents can achieve greater success, reducing the side effects. Król is the first researcher at her university to have been awarded an ERC grant.

Magdalena Król

2016: Starting Grant

DVD diagnosis


The Zika virus may no longer be headline news, but that does not mean it has disappeared. The US still sees over 100 cases a year. Early detection of an infection is therefore of great interest to national health authorities. With financial support from the US Agency for International Development, Danish start-up BluSense Diagnostics has developed a device that can deliver a diagnosis from a single drop of blood in just nine minutes. The sample is mixed with magnetic nanoparticles and inserted into the device. A rotating disc spins the sample, which is then analysed by a laser, similar to those used in DVD and Blu-ray players.

This technology was made possible in 2013 by the basic research carried out by Anja Boisen, professor of Micro- and Nanotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark. In her work, she demonstrated the potential of using nanomechanical sensors in conjunction with DVD technology. This technology not only allows Zika to be diagnosed more easily and quickly, but also other illnesses such as diabetes and liver disease. As the device is portable and light, general practitioners can make diagnoses that would normally require laboratory tests. Patients suffering from chronic ailments can have their analyses done at home.

Anja Boisen

2012: Advanced Grant
2013: Proof of Concept

The next computer generation


Filtering CO2 directly from the air, producing new drugs and high-tech materials, transmitting energy without loss – these are just a few of the potential uses of quantum computers. Such computers are currently at a rudimentary stage of development although they have huge potential. Quantum computers make use of quantum bits (qubits). The difference between a qubit and the currently used bit is that while a bit has just two states (0 or 1), a qubit can adopt several different states thanks to the laws of quantum mechanics. This means that, in just a few seconds, quantum computers can do calculations that would take conventional computers years. This could not only revolutionise work involving large amounts of data, but their quantum mechanical properties could also be used to simplify the simulation of molecules, a field in which even today’s supercomputers deliver unreliable results.

There are currently several ways of generating qubits. One of the most promising has been devised by Jeremy O’Brien, Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol. He and his team were the first to develop a silicon chip on which two identical light particles (photons) move around. The next stage is to increase the number of photons and use bigger circuits. O’Brien believes that within the next 10 years, this technology will allow quantum computers to process calculations that are way beyond the capabilities of conventional computers.

Jeremy O’Brien

2009: Starting Grant
2011: Proof of Concept
2014: Consolidator Grant

The world’s smallest machines


All he wanted to do was find molecules that could be used to build smaller computer chips. But instead, Bernard Feringa, professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen, discovered a molecule that could rotate 180° under the influence of light. In 1999, he and his team were the first to build a mini rotor-blade that can be driven by light and heat. The technical details are impressive: the rotor-blade is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, but can turn 12 million times per second and spin a glass cylinder.

For his research, Feringa was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (jointly with the researchers Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir Fraser Stoddart). Based on this research, new types of batteries and light-sensitive sensors may well be built in the future. Feringa is currently focusing on medical applications. An example is the light-driven nanoswitch, which can be used to activate and deactivate an antibiotic. The drug would thus work only where it is needed and would not damage any beneficial bacteria in the body. The challenge here is to use not UV-light (which has traditionally been used but is harmful to the body) but infrared light.

Bernard Feringa

2008, 2015: Advanced Grant

Ruler of the waves


In the region between microwaves and infrared waves is the realm of terahertz radiation. These waves can pass through fabric, cardboard, wood and many types of plastic. They are biologically harmless as they do not alter the chemical structure of the material through which they pass. They have many potential uses. In addition to their controversial use in airport security checks, other applications include data transmission, early cancer diagnosis and energy technologies. There is just one problem: terahertz waves are very difficult to detect, which has hampered research in this field for quite some time.

Jaime Gómez Rivas, professor of Nanophotonics at Eindhoven University of Technology, is closing in on these waves in his research. “My first step was to learn more about how terahertz radiation reacts with metals,” he explains. He was able to show how terahertz waves can be channelled by using their resonance with a gold surface. Based on these observations, he developed a measuring device which makes the radiation visible at very high resolution. The beam’s intensity is measured near the metal. A major German company is interested in this concept and hopes to market it.

Jaime Gómez Rivas

2009: Starting Grant
2015: Proof of Concept

Nanomaterials from a 3D printer


Valeria Nicolosi, at Trinity College Dublin, is researching so-called two-dimensional nanomaterials. This is the term used to describe materials that are as thick as an atom. Over 500 exist (of which the best known is graphene) and all have extremely valuable properties, such as high robustness or exceptional conductivity. With her 3D2D-Print research project, Nicolosi hopes to develop a new type of battery which can not only charge in a few minutes, but can also be integrated directly into another material. The possibilities include smartphone covers and batteries that could be inserted into the body and used to control a pacemaker. This is possible due to 3D printing technology, where several two-dimensional nanomaterials are mixed to produce the desired properties.

Nicolosi is a pioneer in her field. With the aid of an electron microscope, she was the first to show the individual atoms of two-dimensional nanomaterials. It is also thanks to her work that graphene can be produced cheaply in large quantities. She has already received five ERC grants for her work, more than any other scientist in Ireland.

Valeria Nicolisi

2011: Starting Grant
2013, 2015, 2016: Proof of Concept
2016: Consolidator Grant