The Collaboration Factory
After 10 years and €1 billion in investment, the Belval innovation campus has become one of Europe’s foremost centers for technology and biomedical collaborations. What’s next?
By Eric Bender, May 15, 2017
Looking out his office window, Marc Schiltz sees two renovated blast furnaces, reminders of Luxembourg’s heritage and symbols of its future. The furnaces sit at the heart of the Belval innovation campus, a research and development center and the result of 10 years and €1 billion in investment.
Schiltz runs the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), the country’s main public research funding organization, which also advises Luxembourg’s government on science and research policies. But his institution is one of many. Belval contains the University of Luxembourg, which was founded in 2003, and now ranks among the top-200 universities globally, along with Luxinnovation, an agency that sponsors industry collaboration; the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology; the Luxembourg Institute of Health; the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine; and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust, among others.
A physicist, Schiltz returned to his native country five years ago to lead FNR, drawn by Luxembourg’s commitment to research excellence. Almost none of this innovation ecosystem existed 20 years ago, he says. “To attract innovative businesses to Luxembourg, we had to build up an entire system — to set up public research capabilities and a university to train our future scientists, engineers and business leaders. It was a long-term plan — but it had to move very fast.”
FNR, which has an annual budget of about €70 million, supports more than 40 industry-academia collaborations, working both with traditional partners, including Goodyear Tire and Rubber and the steelmaker ArcelorMittal, and many smaller firms. “We allocate funding to research programs only after systematic quality control, which we do through our peer-review system with the help of international experts,” Schiltz says. “We want to rapidly gain international excellence in a number of research priority areas, aligned with the economic development priorities of Luxembourg.” FNR also works with Luxinnovation, which offers a range of practical support services for the country’s thriving startup scene, including an incubator facility.
“More and more, our researchers are being contacted by companies from abroad, which is a good sign that some of our research efforts have gained international visibility,” says Schiltz.
A Good Grip on Materials
With its deep roots in steel production, Luxembourg has long invested in materials research. In 2016, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) launched a national center for research on composite materials, a joint venture funded by government and industry for up to €100 million over five years.
Also in 2016, Goodyear, a regular collaborator with LIST, announced a five-year partnership program for tire development. “This is the biggest R&D public-private partnership in Luxembourg, and a blueprint for these partnerships,” says Aziz Zenasni, LIST’s director of programs.
“We can offer Goodyear expertise and competencies in work with new materials that will be the basis for the next generation of tires,” he says. Goals include the creation of alternative materials for tire fillers and treads, such as a wet-conditions pattern (shown at left), as well as the improvement of manufacturing processes and trendspotting within the market. One major theme is advanced characterization and testing of new materials, exploiting LIST’s state-of-the-art facilities.
In the emerging era of connected and autonomous vehicles, the program’s goals go beyond improving traditional metrics of tire performance. “The trend is also to introduce some intelligence in the tire, connecting it to other components in the car and to the roads,” Zenasni says. “For instance, we are studying how to embed nanoparticles that provide rapid and reliable information about the performance of the tire or the behavior of the driver.”
Building Biomedicine Systems
Like three-quarters of the researchers in Luxembourg, Rudi Balling is not a native of the country. But in 2009, the prominent geneticist got an offer he couldn’t refuse: to set up a biomedical research center at the University of Luxembourg from scratch. “‘Here is a white sheet of paper,’ they told me. ‘Just do biomedical research with a focus on systems biology,’” Balling recalls.
Now, he says, the Centre for Systems Biomedicine has 15 principal investigators, more than 220 people and an interdisciplinary research program where experimental biology meets computational biology meets translational medical research under one roof,
About half of the center’s focus is on Parkinson’s disease. As part of that effort, the center has joined with other research groups in the National Centre of Excellence in Research on Parkinson’s disease, where a main initiative is to leverage systems-biology tools to improve early diagnosis.
The center’s investigators can pick their own topics for the other half of their research. One early example of dual payback from this approach comes from microbial ecologist, Paul Wilmes, who was recruited to explore the role of intestinal microbes, both in general health and disease, including Parkinson’s. Wilmes and his co-workers devised a microfluidic system for studying all these microbes, which make up the so-called gut microbiome (See ‘Microbiome-on-a-Chip’).
From blast furnaces to biomedical technology, scientists in Luxembourg keep working together.
Scientists have developed a system to rapidly assess the impact of microbes on human cells
Biomedical scientists around the world race to study how microbes in our intestines might help to drive neurological disease, autoimmune conditions and many other illnesses. But it’s fiendishly difficult to measure the interactions between microbial cells and their human counterparts. Working at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine, which is at the University of Luxembourg, microbial ecologist Paul Wilmes attacked this challenge with technology — the Human-Microbial Cross-Talk (HuMiX) research model, which is a novel organ-on-a-chip developed in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Arizona in Phoenix.
HuMiX consists of three chambers: one carries fluid through the device, one allows the culture of human epithelial cells and one allows the culture of bacteria under conditions representative of those in the gut. Scientists can insert human cells from individuals and a particular species of bacteria. Molecules filter between the layers, and the impact of the bacteria on the human cells can be assessed using high-resolution molecular measurements. For example, scientists can measure changes in the activity of human genes caused by the bacteria. In short, this device lets scientists analyze the interactions of human cells and microbes in unprecedented detail.
Luxembourg’s Innovation Is Out of This World was created by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from its board of editors, working in partnership with the Luxembourg Ministry of the Economy, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, and the Luxembourg National Research Fund.