Participation in the European Union's Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development (FP) enables Swiss players in research and innovation to integrate themselves into this internationally competitive environment. The importance of the FPs extends far beyond funding. A selection of Swiss success stories can be found on this page.
- Using an ancient force more efficiently
- The 3D laser printer no bigger than a shoebox
- Native fodder plants reduce nitrogen emissions
- TABULA RASA in the world of biometric systems
- Welfare state priorities – helping to find compromises
- New ways to address the problem of water pollution
- Health in old age for everyone
- Data stored safely in the cloud
Using an ancient force more efficiently
- Hydropower plants PERformance and flexiBle Operation towards Lean integration of new renewable Energies
- Project duration: 09/2013 – 02/2017
- Number of project partners: 10, Number of countries: 6
- Total budget: € 6'294'644, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 1'628'270
The history of hydropower goes back a long way. Historians estimate that it was used in China 5000 years ago. In 1866, Werner von Siemens succeeded for the first time in converting hydropower into electricity. This was followed in 1880 by the first commissioning of a hydroelectric power plant in Great Britain. Since then, hydroelectric power has become increasingly important as a source of electricity, not least because of its inexhaustible potential as a renewable energy source. Recently, the EU issued a directive that dictates a massive increase in the use of renewable energy sources. Hydropower plants will have to play a major role in achieving these ambitious targets.
“Thanks to EU funding, it has been possible to establish international collaboration between key players.“
Prof. François Avellan
of the EPFL Lausanne
This is where the “Hyperbole” project comes in. Its aim was to increase the efficiency of hydroelectric power plants and improve their long-term viability. To this end, the dynamics of the various hydroelectric machine sets in these hydroelectric power plants were to be optimised in their hydraulic, mechanical and electrical properties. Under the coordination of Prof. François Avellan of the EPFL Lausanne, a consortium of universities, leading hydropower turbine manufacturers and an SME was formed. The consortium carried out tests on site and on a miniaturised model to optimise the functioning of the hydroelectric turbines and also used digital simulations of real hydroelectric turbines.
The Hyperbole project delivered an impressive scientific performance in the form of publications and doctoral theses. At EPFL, for example, four PhD theses were realised, fulfilling the task of training the scientific and technical staff needed by industry and the public sector. In addition, the project has produced the first economic study showing how to ensure the profitability of pumped storage power plants by extending their operating range. According to Prof. François Avellan, the Hyperbole project has contributed significantly to the development and integration of renewable energy sources. It thus contributes to achieving the EU’s strategic goals in its agenda 2020. In addition, the machines and processes developed in the project represent a decisive competitive advantage for European suppliers of hydroelectric equipment. They enable the industrial partners in the project to defend or even increase their share of the world market. The installation of new and refurbished hydropower plants and the development of renewable energy sources have a very interesting business potential.
From a Swiss point of view, the project has strengthened the visibility of Prof. François Avellan’s EPFL laboratory as one of the world’s leading research laboratories in the field of turbines and pump turbines for hydropower plants. Moreover, through the knowledge they gained during the project, the Hydraulic Machinery Laboratory of the two Swiss Centres of Excellence in Energy Research, SCCER SoE and Furies will also contribute to the implementation of the Confederation’s Energy Strategy 2050.
The 3D laser printer no bigger than a shoebox
- Femtosecond laser printer for glass microsystems with nanoscale features
- Project duration: 05/2010 – 04/2013
- Number of project partners: 9, Number of countries: 5
- Total budget: € 3'391'780, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 161'699
“I am grateful to the EU framework programme. Without it, our company FEMTOprint would not exist.” These are the words of Nicoletta Casanova, co-founder and CEO of FEMTOprint SA, a high-tech company in Ticino which has won several awards. The company continues to expand and currently employs around twenty specialists.
“The success of FEMTOprint is an incentive for companies from Ticino to participate and apply for FP projects. In doing so they are supported by regional institutions in Ticino.“
Nicoletta Casanova, co-founder and CEO of FEMTOprint SA
The Femtoprint research project was set up to develop a 3D printer designed to create miniature glass devices called microdevices. The aim was to allow a wide range of users in research centres, small businesses and higher education institutions to create their own microdevices very quickly, without the need for expensive infrastructure or specific expertise.
“The technology developed at FEMTOprint is constantly being improved, and there are new and interesting prospects for developing a multitude of microdevises with resolutions down to the nanometre,” explains Casanova. The Femtoprinter works with ultra-short laser pulses, in the femtosecond range, to “print” monolithic pieces with specific mechanical, fluid or optical properties. Such a printer has a huge range of applications, since it uses glass, a material with numerous useful properties: for example, it is biocompatible, very stable, insensitive to electromagnetic fields, transparent and even flexible at micrometric dimensions. The Femtoprinter can produce a variety of precise forms for a range of industries including watchmaking, biotechnology, optics and telecommunications. It is not only highly effective, it is also very compact: the original version of its laser was no bigger than a shoebox.
Besides technological development, another objective of the three-year project was to develop a solid business plan to market the Femtoprint technology. The issue of intellectual property often represents a major obstacle when a spin-off is created to implement project results, in part because the various partners from different countries all have rights to the project results. The Femtoprint project consortium solved this dilemma by running a competition among the project partners to find the best business idea. “The winner of the competition would receive exclusive rights to use the technology developed,” says Casanova, explaining the agreement reached at the time. As an entrepreneur with start-up experience, she played an important role in the winning team.
Although developing the Femtoprinter was the main aim of the project, the new technology has also given rise to other commercial products. These are distributed by other project participants or licensed to European companies.
The FEMTOprint company’s voyage also continues, as Casanova explains: “We would like to continue to develop the Femtoprint technology platform, so we regularly respond to calls for European projects and are often contacted by higher education institutions or businesses asking if we would like to take part in collaborative EU research projects.”
Native fodder plants reduce nitrogen emissions
- Optimising plant polyphenols in LEGUMES for ruminant nutrition PLUS health PLUS environ-mental sustainability
- Project duration: 01/2012 – 12/2015
- Number of project partners: 8, Number of countries: 6
- Total budget: € 4'097'982, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 751'172
Global challenges such as climate change and rapid population growth pose a threat to our food security on the long term. One way of dealing with such threats is to improve the efficiency of ruminant fodder production and use. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel, as the LegumePlus project, launched in 2012 under the EU framework programme, shows.
“Such a project offers an ideal platform for international, intersectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Dr. Frigga Dohme-Meier, head of the research group at the Agroscope research institute
“The project helped us to rediscover the potential for animal production of fodder legumes containing condensed tannins, such as sainfoin,” explains Dr Frigga Dohme-Meier, head of the research group at the Agroscope research institute. Sainfoin is a native legume which captures nitrogen from the air and can therefore be used in place of artificial fertilisers. It is also a protein-rich source of raw fodder and contains tannins. However, it is now rarely used in farming. The researchers were able to show that growing sainfoin reduces levels of nitrogen in the environment. Fed to ruminants, it also improves the composition of milk and meat for human consumption. As legumes help to prevent bloat in animals’ digestive tracts, they contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; along with their environmental benefits, they provide a sustainable, native source of protein-rich fodder. Based on these project results, Agroscope has developed a new sainfoin seed mix, which is now available to farmers to be grown as fodder.
According to Dohme-Meier, the strong network built up by the researchers and the trans- and interdisciplinary approach were key to the success of the project. Thanks to these elements, it was possible to view the problem and the potential solution from a global perspective. The project was funded via the Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Actions, a funding instrument in the EU framework programmes which is specifically aimed at promoting the younger generation of scientists. “Giving opportunities to young researchers was a very stimulating experience for the mentors,” explains Dohme-Meier. The PhD students received generous funding and high-quality support. They were also able to take part in international project meetings and to gain experience in a range of disciplines, working with various research groups throughout Europe over a period of six months.
The positive experiences have not come to an end with the conclusion of the project. The research network continues to grow. As the then PhD students now have new post-doctoral positions in European research groups, they can form interesting new contacts and opportunities for working together. Furthermore, sainfoin is now being studied further in an Agroscope research programme (REDYMO), which is looking in greater detail at the interaction between tannins and the gut microbiome, and how the anti-bacterial effect of these substances can be exploited to reduce antibiotics use in animals.
TABULA RASA in the world of biometric systems
- Trusted Biometrics under Spoofing Attacks
- Project duration: 11/2010 – 04/2014
- Number of project partners: 12, Number of countries: 7
- Total budget: € 5'567'257, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 737'886
A technique which featured only in sci-fi films a few years ago is now an integral part of real life: machines equipped with facial and vocal recognition software are now widespread. Smartphones, tablets and passports – all contain personal and confidential information that can be protected by a biometric system. But biometric sensors still have some weaknesses. This makes deceptive attacks possible while concealing one’s own identity (so-called spoofing attacks). For example, scammers can try to bypass the facial recognition system by using other people’s photos or masks.
„TABULA RASA has given rise to a number of spin-off projects funded under FP7 and Horizon 2020 and by national promotion agencies throughout Europe.“
Dr. Sébastien Marcel from the Idiap research institute in Martigny (VS)
The aims of the TABULA RASA project coordinated by Sébastien Marcel from the Idiap research institute in Martigny (VS) was to identify as many weak points as possible in these biometric systems and then to develop corrective measures such as combining biometric characteristics for data access. The goal was to develop a new generation of reliable biometric technologies that are capable of withstanding direct attempts to steal a person’s identity. To this aim the researchers studied biometric data rarely used previously, such as a person’s gait, their veins, or electrophysiological signals such as heartbeat. They then analysed the advantages and disadvantages of using the various data.
The very first harmonised evaluation systems and methods were developed in the TABULA RASA project. They are now being used by many biometric researchers and have also been used to define standards such as ISO / IEC 30107.
Publications, data sets, algorithms and evaluation methods from the project have changed the way the sector thinks. A better understanding of identity theft has allowed European businesses to strengthen their dominant position by improving the design of the next generation of identity theft-resistant biometric sensors and exploiting the enormous potential of biometric technology. The project has also had a world-wide impact: Apple has developed a more secure version of its facial recognition system (iPhone X FaceID) based on the project results.
The improved systems not only provide more secure devices and information, they also mean faster connections to computer terminals or faster and more accurate border controls. “We believe that many different organisations will be interested in our research, including tech companies, postal operators, banks, mobile device manufacturers and online service providers,” explains Marcel. The Swiss industrial partner, KeyLemon, has drawn long-term benefit from the project in the form of know-how and job creation.
The TABULA RASA project opened further doors for Marcel’s research group. “Following this project we received lots of other projects on identity theft. Our research group has also been involved in some confidential projects run by large corporations, and we have worked on improving and evaluating techniques which recognise when someone is trying to fake biometric data.” The Canton of Valais and the town of Martigny supported the establishment of the Swiss Centre for Research and Evaluation in Biometric Security (Centre suisse de recherche et d’évaluation en sécurité biométrique), whose aim is to develop biometric test activities and establish certification methods for them. Meanwhile, the Idiap Biometrics Security and Privacy research group has made a name for itself globally with its pioneering activities in detecting biometric attacks.
Welfare state priorities – helping to find compromises
- Welfare state politics under pressure: Identifying priorities, trade-offs and reform opportunities among citizens, political and economic elites
- Project duration: 09/2017 – 08/2022
- Number of project partners: 1, Number of countries: 1
- Total budget: € 1 474'133, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 1'474'133
When cuts need to be made, countries are faced with making difficult decisions and compromises in their welfare policies. When resources are tight, whose risks should the social security system safeguard? Should the welfare state give priority to the needs of older or younger people? Of workers or the unemployed? Of the country’s nationals or immigrants?
„Right from the start, the project attracted a lot of interest among political parties, decision-makers and the media.“
Prof. Silja Häusermann
of the University of Zurich
The way in which countries decide to answer these questions depends on the priorities of its citizens, and of its political class and economic decision-makers. But little is known about these priorities and the factors that influence them, and even less about the mechanisms that promote a sense of social solidarity and favour compromise beyond personal interest.
This is where the Welfarepriorities project comes in. Funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and headed by Professor Silja Häusermann of the University of Zurich, it applies innovative theoretical and methodical approaches to gain new insights into the political coalitions and lines of conflict that influence social policy in the 21st century. It also aims to develop and validate new empirical methods to measure the preferences and priorities of the various stakeholders, and so build up a body of data on the priorities of the public and political parties. Such information can provide a solid basis for assessing the feasibility of particular reforms, such as the promotion of early childhood education or the protection of retirement pensions. It will also provide information on the type of social policy that is welcomed by specific groups of voters. Overall, it is hoped that the findings will foster compromise that is politically acceptable throughout society.
“Thanks to the widespread visibility of an ERC grant both within one’s own university and in the research community in general, the research comes to the attention of many people who might not otherwise have been aware of it,” explains Häusermann. In her case, she was able to present the project at several conferences both in Switzerland and abroad, and was invited to take part in a number of joint research applications by national and international consortia. She was also invited to sit on various academic committees and to take on tasks outside academia, for example for the advisory bodies of think tanks and social insurance organisations. Although the project was only launched in the autumn of 2017, initial findings have already been discussed by the media, public, political parties and policymakers, e.g. at a meeting of German-speaking ministers for social affairs. In addition to the academic findings and their significance for welfare policy, Häusermann believes that an ERC project offers only benefits: “An ERC grant provides the time and resources to address all the scientific endeavours one wishes to pursue. It’s like swimming in a perfect pond.”
New ways to address the problem of water pollution
- Microorganism and enzyme Immobilization: Novel Techniques and Approaches for Upgraded Remediation of Underground-, wastewater and Soil
- Project duration: 01/2011 – 12/2013
- Number of project partners: 16, Number of countries: 8
- Total budget: € 3'914'682, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 494'137
Industry, agriculture and modern living standards leave their mark on the environment. For example, traces of industrial chemicals, drug residues and personal care products can be found almost everywhere in the water cycle. Wastewater from households and industry contains drugs such as antibiotics, hormones and organic compounds. This not only poses a threat to human and animal health, but also compromises the supply of clean drinking water in some parts of the world.
“Participation in EU projects and coordination initiatives are an extremely useful means of improving the visibility of our research.“
Prof. Philippe Corvini, University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW)
MINOTAURUS, a collaborative European project coordinated by Prof. Philippe Corvini and Prof. Thomas Wintgens at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW), addressed this issue. Corvini, who has headed the Institute for Ecopreneurship at the FHNW School of Life Sciences since 2007, stresses the importance of taking part in EU FP projects for a relatively young institute like his: “These FP projects have given us national and international visibility. They have helped us to establish ourselves as a globally recognised institution in the field of environmental and water technologies.”
The MINOTAURUS project showed that biological water treatment methods such as bioremediation are ideal for reducing the pollutant content of water. Bioremediation is a process in which microorganisms or other living organisms (e.g. plants or algae) are used to restore polluted water, soil and air to a healthy state. Either whole cells or cell enzymes can be used. An enzyme is a biological macromolecule that acts as a catalyst to accelerate a chemical reaction, for instance the degradation of a pollutant.
The MINOTAURUS project examined whether immobilising biocatalysts leads to a more rapid and effective biological degradation of pollutants. The researchers identified and isolated suitable biocatalysts (enzymes, bacteria or a mix of microorganisms) for different target compounds. For the first time, they were able to demonstrate that bacteria feed on antibiotics under certain conditions and can therefore also be used to biodegrade them. This ground-breaking discovery opens up a completely new and promising perspective in the fight against the antibiotic resistance of bacteria, which is a major health risk today.
The identified biocatalysts were first tested in the laboratory and later in field experiments for their effectiveness in purifying polluted groundwater and wastewater biologically. But, the project did not end there. In addition to identifying and testing new biocatalysts, the researchers developed new reactor systems for immobilised biocatalysts, thereby creating a technology that is ‘mobile’, so to speak: the environmental technology can be brought to the polluted site, and the uncontrolled spread of polluted water prevented. Finally, the usability of the technology and the reactors were extensively tested to determine the effectiveness of the treatment, identify potential risks and establish compliance with EU directives in the water sector.
All in all, the MINOTAURUS project revealed that natural enzymes and microbes in remediation processes reduce overall energy and chemical use, lower costs and minimise the carbon footprint. In addition, the project led to the creation of a spin-off company from the FHNW’s School of Life Sciences, INOFEA AG.
A key aspect of FP projects is the dissemination of research findings, which should not only be published in specialised journals, but also made available to the general public. The most important research findings from the MINOTAURUS project, for example, were published in a book. Corvini feels that policymakers in the EU should be better informed of the results of FP projects. This could improve the socio-economic benefits of FP projects further.
Health in old age for everyone
- Lifecourse biological pathways underlying social differences in healthy ageing
- Project duration: 05/2015 – 04/2019
- Number of project partners: 17, Number of countries: 11
- Total budget: € 7'259'113, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 841'525
Various studies show that differences in social, economic and ecological conditions that people experience during their lives can lead to considerable differences in terms of their health. The disadvantaged are more likely to develop certain illnesses such as diabetes. This group also demonstrates a higher mortality rate and therefore also have shorter life expectancy.
“Lifepath has been one of the most enriching experiences in my career so far.“
Dr. Silvia Stringhini, from Vaud University Hospital (CHUV)
The aim of the Lifepath project was to identify the biological mechanisms that promote healthy aging and which are influenced by socio-economic conditions. Fifteen project teams with members from more than ten countries studied the biological traces which are present in the human body when this is exposed to certain socio-economic factors. Silvia Stringhini from Vaud University Hospital (Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois, CHUV) was one of those taking part in the project. She and her colleagues collected data from more than 40 cohort studies involving almost two million participants from all over the world. The main objective of the study was to promote the idea of a balanced and fair approach to health based on empirical evidence, and to reduce the impact of socio-economic differences on health. For example, it was demonstrated that, besides material factors, psychosocial stress, in particular among children and vulnerable adults, may be a key factor in creating inequalities in health. Introducing suitable measures to improve a person’s socio-economic conditions could therefore mean that they enjoy better health in old age. The Lifepath project came up with a range of proposals regarding the moment when these measures should be taken and the necessity of adopting an integrated approach so that everyone can enjoy good health as they grow old.
The results help to close the health gap between the different socio-economic groups in society. They are also being used to develop global health policies and strategies aimed at ensuring equal and universal access to health prevention and at improving health coverage as soon as possible.
The project has not only been cited in a large number of articles published in scientific journals, it has also been widely covered in the media. Silvia Stringhini mentions some other positive outcomes: “This project allowed us to create a major network in several countries and consolidate the importance of this discipline in Switzerland. This network will remain in place until the end of my academic career.” Boosted by its success, the project consortium has already submitted other requests for collaborative research projects. As Silvia Stringhini explains, EU-funded research projects offer the possibility of working with researchers both in Europe and around the world. This is a huge advantage which enables issues to be put into proper perspective and creates scientific ties across national borders.
Data stored safely in the cloud
- Secure Big Data Processing in Untrusted Clouds
- Project duration: 01/2016 – 12/2018
- Number of project partners: 7, Number of countries: 6
- Total budget: € 2'285'377, Budget of Swiss Partner: € 537'000
It is becoming increasingly common for data, including sensitive data such as banking details, to be stored not on a local server but in what is known as ‘the cloud’. Furthermore, it is becoming more common for businesses to offer their online services directly from a cloud. This is practical and reduces costs, but it also carries risks: in the cloud, data is more exposed to non-authorised persons than when it is kept locally. Large-scale cyberattacks such as Petya in 2016 and WannaCry in 2017 can cause huge damage and completely paralyse entire businesses.
„In the medium term, the project could lead to legislative adjustments.“
Prof. Pascal Felber
from the University of Neuchâtel
The SecureCloud project, in which Prof. Pascal Felber from the University of Neuchâtel was involved, aimed to make the cloud more secure. The promising approach adopted involved encrypting data so that it cannot be read, while offering the possibility of conducting calculations directly on encrypted data in a secure environment. Thanks to the technology developed in the project, cloud providers themselves can neither read nor use the stored data. Any data stored even in insecure cloud environments is therefore safe from intrusion.
The project has already borne fruit. A start-up has been founded to exploit the technology developed. The project is also a success on the intercultural front, with the team being made up of two Swiss, a German, a Brit, a Dane, an Italian, an Israeli and seven Brazilians project partners. Felber explains that “this type of collaborative project is enriching and impactful, although the distance and time differences have presented a challenge”.
For Felber and his team, the active involvement of industry has been a major motivating factor. This results in more applied research with results that could have a significant impact on industry and society. In the medium term, the project could even lead to legislative adjustments. Currently in Switzerland, for example, patient data may not be stored anywhere other than within the national borders – i.e. it may not be stored in the cloud. If, thanks to the new technology, the cloud were to become more secure – perhaps even more secure than a local server – this restriction would have to be reviewed.