The VILLUM Experiment: DKK 71 million for 39 unorthodox research ideas

13.06.2017

Conversion of CO2 to climate-friendly material. Cars that change color. Systems that recognize insects without capturing them first. VILLUM FONDEN supports the wildest ideas from 39 bright minds within technical and scientific with DKK 71 million.

It is the first time that VILLUM FONDEN allocates grants within the VILLUM Experiment, which supports the quite unique research idea that challenges the norm and has the potential to fundamentally change the way we approach important topics.

DKK 71 million for 39 unorthodox and potentially groundbreaking experiments. Experiments that span widely in various ways: The researchers behind the experiments range from postdocs to professors - and among these are particularly many associate professors - from both the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University. In addition, the degree of originality in the experiments spans wide, however all of them have a fundamental element of innovation - and a technical and scientific background.

The VILLUM Experiment

• Support for the bold research idea that would have difficulty fitting into the conventional peer-review funding system.
• Created for the very special research projects that challenge the norm and have the potential to fundamentally alter the way we approach important topics.
• Ensures that researchers dare to submit their most ambitious ideas without being pilloried by their peers who will be reviewing the proposals, applicants are anonymous to the reviewers. This is also introduced to reduce any bias from the reviewers.
• The reviewers are asked to emphasize the ideas they regard as being genuinely innovative. Perhaps only one in ten projects will prove capable of yielding something unique.
• Each of the reviewers have the opportunity to appoint one application with a desicive vote. If this happens, there must be quite significant arguments from the foundation’s board of directors to reject the project.
• The amount granted is DKK 1-2 million, which is to cover a research period of 1-2 years.
• The program is open to all researchers regardless of nationality and can be applied for by active researchers regardless of any age.
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Need for more funding sources

Not only are the projects experimental: The course of the selection of the experiments is new and different compared to typical research grants. The application is anonymous, and the reviewers have the opportunity to appoint an idea a dicisive vote. This is the idea that they think is extraordinary and which, no matter what others might think, must be selected.

"In an environment of peer reviews and strong competition, researchers may be cautious in launching their significantly different idea. The idea that you may not dare say aloud, which does not fit into the framework of research funding today. However, if you look back and look at the ideas that made a real paradigm shift, then it would have been hard to predict. There must be room for researchers with new ideas and an unexpected approach - and other ways of funding than through the recognized peer review process,” says Thomas Sinkjær, Director of Science, VILLUM FONDEN.

Focus on the good idea

Professor Marcos Gonzalez-Gaitan from Université de Genève in Switzerland is one of the external reviewers who participated in the selection of the experiments:

"It has been exciting and challenging to read the anonymous applications. It is a completely new way to access the research. A very interesting "experiment" that has expanded my scientific horizon and forced me to focus solely on the research idea. Great praise to VILLUM FONDEN for their willingness to take risks. For who knows maybe only one of 10 experiments will turn out to create something unique.”

“A single experiment is worth more than 1000 expert views”.

The founder of THE VELUX FOUNDATIONS, Villum Kann Rasmussen, graduate engineer, conceived this motto. As an imaginative and innovative inventor, he was continually experimenting. Tables, chairs, coffee machines, wind turbines and, of course, his most famous invention, the VELUX roof window.

"Villum Kann Rasmussen held bright initiatives and bright ideas in the highest regard. With the VILLUM Experiment, we hope to award funding to those bright minds that might come up with a wild new and bold research project. The researchers, who see that things can connect in ways other than we believe, and can conduct the bold projects that may confirm or dismiss their wild idea," says Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN.

The 39 VILLUM Experiments:

Technical University of Denmark
3D reconstruction of neuronal connectivity in the mouse brain

Tim Dyrby, DTU Compute, DKK 2 million

Will be upodated soon

A Diamond-Encased Bose-Einstein Condensate

Haitham El-Ella, DTU Physics, DKK 1.9 million

Interesting and surprising phenomena appear when we zoom in on the smallest parts of matter. At these length-scales quantum mechanics governs the interactions and motions, using physical laws that are counter-intuitive to what we observe in macroscopic-scale interactions.

For many years, scientists have explored the borderline between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics using so-called Bose-Einstein condensates, where particles can show quantum mechanical behavior at macroscopic scales. The best-known example is an atomic gas cloud cooled down to a temperature close to absolute zero.

This VILLUM Experiment attempts to generate a novel type of Bose-Einstein condensate using electron spins in custom-engineered diamond crystals. The risky part of this experiment is the difficulty in engineering suitable diamonds with unique atomic-scale features such as atomic layers where all C-atoms are replaced by N-atoms, and suitably integrated resonators that can simultaneously control all the N-atom electron spins.

If the project is successful, novel properties of solid-state Bose-Einstein condensates can be demonstrated, generating new insights on the interface between quantum and classical physics, while even the partial success of this experiment is expected to aid the development of novel quantum technologies.

 

ArthroLube: A new approach to the biocompatibility and longevity of articular joint implants

Seunghwan Lee, DTU Mechanical Engineering, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

DireWaves - Disarming resistant microbes with resonant fields

Nikolaj Sorgenfrei Blom, DTU Chemical Engineering, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Electrochemical NOx-reduction with a novel tri-functional cathode

Kent Kammer Hansen, DTU Energy, DKK 1.5 million

Will be updated soon!

Hands-off biology: towards full automation of life science experiments in the cloud

Nikolaus Sonnenschein, DTU Biosustain, DKK 2 millon

Will be updated soon

In situ solution synthesis and 3D structuring of multi-property nanocomposites

Roar R. Søndergaard, DTU Energy, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Plasmon-heated nano-tip: A lightsaber for nanoscience

Xiaolong Zhu, DTU Nanotech, DKK 1.7 million

The aim of this VILLUM Experiment is to push the boundary for confined heating of materials. Laser heating can not be done more accurately than an area of some hundred nanometers in diameter, which is a large area when working with, for example, nanomaterials and molecules. This makes it difficult to control local effects that could otherwise be utilized in new technology.

The project will try to combine advanced plasmon technology and scanning probe microscopy, which can make it possible to heat materials with an extreme atomic level resolution. If the experiment succeeds, a groundbreaking tool has been developed with wide application in catalysis, synthesis, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Sugar harvesting from plant veins (SHARP)

Kaare Hartvig Jensen, DTU Physics, DKK 2 million

Strong demand for alternatives to fossil fuels continues to increase the volume of sugar derived from plants used in biofuel production. The most common biofuel today is ethanol produced from corn starch or cane sugar by fermentation. This claims a significant portion of agricultural land with detrimental effects on the availability of land and cost of food.

The hypothesis in this Villum Experiment is that sugars can be harvested directly from cells in plant veins, thus obviating the need for harvesting, transporting and processing of crops for biofuels. This will provide access to vast untapped resources of sugar in the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere which cannot sustain agriculture.

Using needles inspired by insects that feed on sweet sap in plant veins, we will attempt to extract sugars directly from living cells, thus providing access to a completely new source of biomass.

Turning x-ray microscopy inside out

Hugh Simons, DTU Physics, DKK 1.6 million

Will be updated soon!

The University of Southern Denmark
A DNA molecular motor

Poul Nielsen, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, DKK 1.8 million

Will be updated soon

Endolith Bioculture in 3D Printed Environments (EndoBio3D)

Morten Andersen, Department of Chemical Engineering, DKK 1.7 million

Will be updated soon

Integrated Molecular Plasmon Upconverter for Low-cost, Scalable, and Efficient Organic Photovoltaics (IMPULSE-OPV)

Jonas Sandby Lissau, The Mads Clausen Institute, DKK 1.8 million

To be updated soon

University of Copenhagen
A unique technique, combined with smart structural design to develop a new class of biobased fiber composite material

Anand Ramesh Sanadi, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, DKK 1.6 million

Will be updated soon

A universal approach for structure determination of peptides to medium size proteins by X-ray diffraction

Leila Lo Leggio, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Beyond the genome: Re-theorizing the cellular system

Alexandra Muñoz, Department of Mathematical Sciences, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Deciphering the ribosome code

Sophia Häfner, Biotech Research & Innovation Centre, DKK 1.7 million

Will be updated soon

Elements from the origin and evolution of early life

Tue Hassenkam, Department of Chemistry, DKK 1.7 million

Will be updated soon

Harvesting light to convert carbon dioxide into green materials using a unique two-species adaptive evolution approach

Simon Dusséaux, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, DKK 1.7 million

Will be updated soon

Instant architect of the wall: is plant body shaped by an elusive cell wall-located pathway?

Jozef Mravec, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, DKK 2 million

This VILLUM Experiment questions the common theory for the role of auxin in plants. Auxin is a plant hormone which plays a crucial role for the growth processes and the shape of plants, e.g. development of roots and movement towards light. Auxin is known to regulate elaborated signaling pathways which activate genes in the nucleus of the plant cell. The researchers behind this project have preliminary data which indicates that auxin also plays a role directly in the cell wall, where the hormone can rapidly change the cell wall architecture. Such a theory is controversial, however if it is true it could revolutionise our knowledge on how plants control they growth and appearance.

 

MicroPlastDynamics

Thorbjørn Joest Andersen, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, DKK 1.3 million

Will be updated soon

Na+-K+ ATPase: The predominant consumer of ATP in the brain, studied at the single molecule level

Dimitrios Stamou, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Na+-K+ ATPase: The predominant consumer of ATP in the brainl, studied at the single molecule level.

Transporters are a diverse family of proteins that work as ‘gate keepers’ to cells. Transporters can distinguish specific molecules (e.g. nutrients from toxins) and selectively up-concentrate them in or out of the cell, which is essential for maintaining life. Until recently it was thought that transporters work 24/7. However, we recently developed a method to measure transport at the single molecule level and surprisingly found out that transporters actually take short and long breaks from their “work”. This turned out to be of crucial importance because we could for the first time distinguish conditions (e.g. different drugs) that affect their working schedule from others that change their working efficiency. In this VILLUM Experiment we want to extend the project to study the molecule that consumes ~70% of ATP in the brain, the Na+/K+ ATPase. This project will likely have far reaching biological and potentially therapeutical consequences.

 

Persistent homology as a new tool to understand structural phase transitions

Kell Mortensen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 2 million

Large varieties of soft matter materials have a crystalline structure similar to classical materials, where the basic structure can be described in relatively simple geometric terms. However, while the macroscopic properties of classical materials can be largely understood on the basis of this crystalline symmetry, this is not the case for soft materials. Soft materials typically consist of domains of different materials that are wrapped complexly between each other. Although this complex of domains has an apparently simple geometry, the absolute form plays a subtle role and is crucial to the most interesting characteristics. While crystallographic methods are developed to effectively describe and classify the geometry of crystalline materials, we still lack an analogous method for describing the form of domains, so-called topology. Based on modern computational topology we propose to develop methods to predict and characterise materials effectively with regard to topology and we hypothesize that based on such theory, it will be possible in the evaluation of experimental scattering data to provide direct insight into both material symmetry and topology.

 

Physics of the unexpected: Understanding tipping points in natural systems

Peter Ditlevsen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 1.6 million

Will be updated soon

Pushing exploration of Human Evolution Backward by Palaeoproteomics

Enrico Cappellini, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Quickest detection problems going nonlinear

Jesper Lund Pedersen, Department of Mathematical Sciences, DKK 1.8 million

Quickest detections problems arise from the desire to detect changes of a noisily observed signal as quickly as possible after they occur in real time. For example, a submarine which suddenly turns on its engines, and a sonar system which must detect the appearing signals/sounds generated by the submarine in the background noise of the sea. If the sonar is too hasty, the risk of a false detection of the submarine is high. On the other hand if the sonar is too wary, the delay to correct detection of the submarine is substantial. In either case there is a loss and the problem is to attain a tradeoff (objective criterion) between the two contradicting performance measures. This Villum Experiment will open a new and novel way (i.e. nonlinear method) of looking at this tradeoff. If successful, the project might lead to much faster and more efficient algorithms of quickest detection.

 

Superradiant atomic clock with continuous interrogation

Jan W. Thomsen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 1.7 million

Will be updated soon

Tardigrade CRISPR genome engineering: Exploring the secrets of latent life and extreme stress tolerance in animals

Nadja Møbjerg Jørgensen, Department of Biology, DKK 1.9 million

Could a handful of genes be responsible for the extremotolerant abilities seen among certain animals and if so can unique adaptations, such as tolerance towards freezing and complete dehydration be transferred to other organisms? The objective of this VILLUM Experiment is to apply new gene modification technology (CRISPR-Cas) on tardigrades in order to edit genes presumably involved in unique tardigrade adaptations, with the long-term potential of using the obtained knowledge to transfer adaptations and enhance tolerance, towards e.g. freezing and desiccation, in other organisms. The experiment has the risk of failure as CRISPR-Cas technology is still at an early stage of development and the technology has not, yet, been applied to tardigrades. Moreover, the unique adaptations of tardigrades may be more complex than we here hypothesize, thus relying on more than just a handful of genes.

The adult Y-animal - a 100+ year old enigma in marine biology

Jørgen Olesen, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Was animal domestication driven by gut microbiome humanisation?

Marcus Thomas Gilbert, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, DKK 2 million

Is modification of a wild animal’s gut microbiome a more plausible explanation for how our ancestors’ undertook the first domestication steps, than conventional explanations such as selecting on pre-existing genomic variation? This VILLUM Experiment will characterise the microbiomes of paired feral and domestic cats to identify whether significant differences exist between their microbial communities, and then document the behavioural consequences through microbiome manipulation in colony-bred cats. If correct, our hypothesis stands to revolutionise not only our understanding of the domestication process, but provides a foundation for re-interpreting numerous other processes within basic and applied sciences.

 

Aarhus University
Automatic Insect Detection (AID)

Toke Thomas Høye, Department of Bioscience, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

Exploring the oil degradation capacity of microbes in pristine Arctic environments

Leendert Vergeynst, Department of Bioscience, DKK 1.8 million

Will be updated soon

FISHing for the ancestors of the eukaryotic cell

Kasper Urup Kjeldsen, Department of Bioscience, DKK 2 million

Will be updated soon

New letters to the DNA alphabet

Witold Kot, Institut for Miljøvidenskab, DKK 2 million

DNA functions as an information carrier in all living organisms on our planet. Even though the genetic code has only four letters, or bases (A,T, C and G), it can translate to immense biodiversity around us. But is it only 4 letters? Maybe we are overlooking some of the important information by using our standard methodologies of examining DNA? This project is aimed at exploring the role of queuosine (Q), or related to it compounds, as alternative letters in DNA of newly discovered viruses of bacteria. The key questions addressed include which letter is being replaced with Q, what is the exact mechanism of its synthesis inside the host cell and how is it accomplished by this group of viruses? This VILLUM Experiment can lead to important discoveries concerning use of hyper modified bases and how it affects the very core processes in biology.

 

Novel deep penetration hyperthermia methodology: can we treat deep-seated tumors with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

Mads Sloth Vinding, Department of Clinical Medicine, DKK 2 million

Cancer research has shown improved results of radio and chemo therapy, when combined with hyperthermia. Deep-seated brain tumours, often associated with devastating prognoses, are, however, difficult to treat with hyperthermia.

The examination method of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides anatomical and functional images for diagnoses, treatment planning, progress monitoring, and facilitates numerous research studies. Tomorrows MRI technology seeks to improve images, through enhanced contrast and higher sensitivity to subtle details.

In this VILLUM Experiment we investigate if side effects of the new technology; demanding attention to heat deposition, can be reversed for therapeutic benefits, that is, through controlled and focal hyperthermia.

If the MRI system may comprise a therapeutic purpose, this cancer treatment can potentially gain precision.

Tunable photonic materials inspired by chameleons and copepods

Henrik Birkedal, Department of Chemistry, DKK 2 million

Imagine that you can change the color of objects such as your car at will; the goal of this experiment is to make this possible. To achieve this goal, we will be inspired by the skin of certain animals, such as squids and copepods, that can change their color by tuning materials in their skin in a smart way. We will make bioinspired adaptable photonic materials in a completely new way by incorporating the principles used in the biological organisms into our synthetic materials. These principles have only just been discovered and are highly unconventional in that they rely on changes in the water balance around the photonic material in the animal. If successful, this VILLUM Experiment will initiate new ways of designing adaptable optical materials that can be used in ‘soft’ materials systems that could include new sensor materials for biomedical applications.

 

Quantum nature of retinal proteins

Lars Henrik Andersen, Department of Physics and Astronomy, DKK 1.5 million

Many processes in nature are driven by light quanta (photons) that are absorbed in large biological complexes. A well-known example is the process of vision in the retina, which starts with the absorption of a photon in the molecule retinal, which is the light-absorbing part in opsin proteins. The very same retinal molecule is 'tuned' by the protein structure to absorb light of different colors, which forms the basis of color vision. The vision process has other interesting aspects. It is extremely effective, in the sense that the light absorption in retinal could cause many other processes, which would not be registered as light by the eye. It is also part of the fastest processes known in nature. In this VILLUM Experiment, focus is on the quantum mechanical aspect, which is operative in the retinal molecule. We wish to answer whether the seemingly optimised conditions in opsins may be attributed specifically to quantum mechanics operating in retinal molecule. We want to answer whether the seemingly optimised conditions in opsins may be attributed specifically to quantum mechanics operating in retinal molecule.

Searching for Photosynthetic Archaea in Arctic Permafrost

Yonghui Zeng, Department of Environmental Science, DKK 2 million

The early evolution of photosynthesis remains a long-standing enigma. Among the three domains of life, it has been well established that photosynthesis first evolved in Bacteria billions of years ago and later spread into Eukarya, whereas all members of Archaea are thought to lack the photosynthetic capability, without any plausible explanations. Here we aim to challenge this notion by proposing that photosynthesis instead first evolved in more primitive Archaea and that such photosynthetic archaeal cells are still preserved in ecosystems of modern cryosphere awaiting discovery. In this VILLUM Experiment samples collected in the northwestern part of Greenland will be studied by DNA sequencing in the search for genomic proofs of photosynthetic Archaea.

 

Solid-state QED with STM

Richard Balog, Department of Physics and Astronomy, DKK 1.8 million

Will be updated soon