The research stars of the future: 19 new Villum Young Investigators

This year, VILLUM FONDEN is awarding a total of DKK 126 million to 19 particularly talented young researchers in the technical and natural sciences. Their research areas are very wide-ranging – from the formation of the universe’s first structures to sustainable production using microalgae.

The Villum Young Investigator programme (YIP) focuses on attracting and retaining talented young Danish and international researchers at Danish universities. The aim is to support the development of high-level international research environments in the universities.

VILLUM FONDEN will open the next call for the programme 6 April 2021. Read more about the programme.

Talent, cutting-edge expertise and ambitions for research careers are what Villum Young Investigators are made of. Since the programme was started in 2011, a total of 184 researchers have been given the title – and part of a total grant of over DKK 1.2 billion.

The Villum Young Investigator programme allows talented Danish and international researchers to pursue their ideas and establish their own research groups at Danish universities. With grants of between six and eight million DKK, this year’s 19 budding research stars are ready to make their mark on the future:

“The only thing we know today about the new knowledge that will shape our lives in 20 years’ time is that it is largely being created in the minds of talented young researchers. It is therefore important to give young researchers a solid starting point for establishing their own research profiles,” says Thomas Bjørnholm, Executive Chief Scientific Officer of VILLUM FONDEN.

The new Villum Young Investigators’ contributions to the technical and natural sciences span a wide range of fields – from understanding the universe’s first structures and challenges of quantum technology to the sustainable production of bioproducts using microalgae and the development of an autonomous soft robot.

The eye of the needle

VILLUM FONDEN received 161 applications for the programme. The 19 researchers who made it through the eye of the needle have gone through a process of academic evaluation and interviews with the foundation’s scientific committee as well as final approval by the foundation’s board.

The new Villum Young Investigators are based in five Danish universities: the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, University of Southern Denmark and the IT University of Copenhagen.

Meet the 19 Villum Young Investigators

Photo collage of all the recipients: Download the photo for high-resolution press use here.

Shweta Agarwala
Aarhus University, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, DKK 6m


Printed Bio-inspired Hydrogel based Substrate with Adhesiveness & Electrical Conductivity for Sustainable Electronics

Accumulation of electronic waste on earth is a growing concern. The project will develop new biodegradable materials to enable sustainable electronics for the future. In particular, the project will exploit polymer building blocks and their interactions to design tunable electronic materials with entirely new functionalities; to build a robust platform for studying and developing biodegradable devices. The grant will fund one PhD student, one postdoc and equipment. 

Mie Andersen
Aarhus University, Department of Physics and Astronomy, DKK 8m


Machine learning-guided design of materials for low-temperature catalysis

The design of a material that can catalyze the conversion of CO2 into fuels or chemicals could help us tackle climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels. The project will contribute to this goal by using theoretical methods based on machine learning to direct the search for a material that can hydrogenate CO2 to methanol at low temperatures. The grant will fund the recipient, one postdoc, two PhD students and computational resources. 

Astri Bjørnetun Haugen
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Energy, DKK 6m


6D ceramics

The way a material is oriented can have a big influence on its properties, but the way we make materials today usually does not allow us to fully utilize this. This grant aims to realize “6D ceramics”: ceramics that have both tailored shape in 3D, and a tailored grain orientation in 3D. We will try to demonstrate the approach by making a 6D ceramic energy harvester that delivers more energy than with a conventional ceramic. The grant will fund the recipient and two PhD students.

Fei Ding
University of Southern Denmark, The Mads Clausen Institute, DKK 6m


Quantum Metasurface: A Novel Platform for Generating and Manipulating Single Photons

Significant advances in the generation and control of single photons are needed for future optical quantum technologies, such as photonic quantum computers. This project aims to develop a novel quantum metasurface platform for generating and manipulating single photons at room temperature. This is done by integrating quantum emitters based on nano-diamonds containing color centers with optical metasurfaces. The grant will fund one PhD student, one postdoc and equipment. 

Janus Eriksen
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Department of Chemistry, DKK 8m


DECODENSE: Mean-Field Density Matrix Decompositions

Computer simulations nowadays find use in unravelling the inner workings of, e.g., potential drug prospects or emerging solid-state batteries, particularly whenever traditional empirical explorations prove infeasible. To that end, my project is concerned with the acceleration of contemporary electronic structure methods by means of modern machine learning. The grant will fund a PhD student, a postdoc, the exchange with international peers in addition to new equipment.


Michele Fabris
University of Southern Denmark, SDU Biotechnology, DKK 8m


Engineering bioproduction in photosynthetic microalgae

The current climate crisis dictates a necessary shift towards a sustainable bioeconomy. Microalgae are photosynthetic microorganisms that efficiently fix CO2 and convert it into biomass and bioproducts. Hence, they are ideal candidates for the sustainable synthesis of bioproducts. My team will use innovative bioengineering techniques to develop novel microalgae strains that can produce a variety of high-value compounds. The grant will fund the recipient, a PhD student, a postdoc and equipment. 

Mikkel Heuck
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Photonics, DKK 6m


Quantum Networks with Nonlinear Photonic Devices (QNET-NODES)

In this project, we will develop small optical circuits that are capable of manipulating photons - the smallest building blocks of light. The behavior of photons is described by quantum physics, which makes it possible to use them for computation and information transfer in a fundamentally new way. This will eventually lead to quantum computers with unprecedented computational power and information networks with unbreakable encryption. However, we first need to develop hardware that is capable of controlling photons very precisely. The grant will fund the recipient, a PhD student, a postdoc and equipment.

Stephanie Horion
University of Copenhagen, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, DKK 6m


DRYTIP – Drought-induced tipping points in ecosystem functioning: Coupled insights from Earth Observation, Dynamic Vegetation Model and Field Ecology

Climate pressures on terrestrial ecosystems are ever growing. DRYTIP will break new ground in relation to assessing and understanding drought-induced vegetation die-offs. It will combine Earth Observation, Dynamic Vegetation Model and field data, to generate fundamental knowledge on ecosystem stability to climate extremes and thresholds for regime shifts. The grant will fund one PhD student, one postdoc, as well as fieldwork and exchange with international collaborators.

Morten Kjærgaard
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 8m


Exploring quantum computational power with superconducting quantum bits

The ability to perform fast computations is a cornerstone in modern civilization. By replacing the fundamental units in computers (the bits) with artificial quantum systems (quantum bits) dramatic new computational powers can be unlocked. This project will use superconducting quantum bits to study fundamental questions related to efficient generation of entanglement, small-scale quantum fault-tolerance and novel quantum algorithms. The grant will fund two postdocs and one PhD student. 

Ivana Konvalinka
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Compute, DKK 6m


Bridging social neuroscience and social data science: Uncovering interactive behavioral and brain mechanisms in social networks

The interpersonal dynamics and differences that drive successful social interactions are poorly understood but crucial for solving coordination problems. By bridging social neuroscience and social data science, the project aims to establish how group diversity in social networks influences brain and coordination mechanisms in real time interactions; and which of these mechanisms predict formation of social ties. The project will fund two PhD students, one postdoc, and neuroimaging experiments. 

Laura Mancinska
University of Copenhagen, Department of Mathematics, DKK 6m


Trustworthy Quantum Technologies

Quantum technologies allow for improvements in key modern domains such as communication, computation, and data security. Yet quantum systems are hard to observe directly. Thus, in order to build a future of trustworthy quantum technologies, we must understand how to verify that a quantum device functions properly. This project will put in place a general mathematical theory describing what can and cannot be certified, and how efficiently. The grant will fund two PhD students and a postdoc. 

Charlotte Mason
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 8m


Understanding the First Billion Years

The first stars, black holes and galaxies are too faint to detect directly, but they transformed the early Universe by heating and ionizing their surroundings. This phase transition is key to understanding how the first structures formed but is not well-constrained. This project will develop theoretical models and statistical tools to analyze telescope observations to measure this transition and uncover the Universe's 'Cosmic Dawn'. The grant will fund one PhD student and two postdocs. 

Alexander Michel
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Civil Engineering, DKK 6m


Digital volume correlation – unraveling Fatigue in heteROgeneous eNgineering maTERIals: Frontier

Fatigue has become a crucial topic in the durability and integrity assessment of aeronautical and civil infrastructures. Yet, an understanding of the actual fatigue damage process in engineering materials is lacking. Specifically, one fundamental question remains: what is the micro-mechanical origin of macro-mechanical phenomena? Frontier outlines an approach that will link across length scales and help answer this question. The grant will fund the recipient, one PhD student, and three postdocs. 

Ahmad Rafsanjani
University of Southern Denmark, Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute, DKK 6m


A soft robot with a soft skin

Snakes navigate with ease through narrow passages by moving in straight lines rather than waving their spine. Inspired by this unique locomotion skill, this project will develop an autonomous soft crawling robot that can move efficiently through complex environments. The robot propels itself by creating a harmony between its rhythmic body contractions and the friction properties of its flexible skin. The grant will fund one PhD student, one postdoc, and equipment. 

Eva Rotenberg
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Compute, DKK 6m


Efficient Recomputations for Changeful Problems

Graph algorithms are used to efficiently compute answers to questions about graphs and networks. When the graph or network is prone to changes, a new task arises: that of adjusting the answer to fit the new instance after each change. In this project, we will develop new algorithms with strong theoretical guarantees for maintaining information about dynamic graphs; i.e. graphs subject to change. The grant will fund two PhD students, a postdoc, and meetings with international collaborators. 

Tina Santl-Temkiv
Aarhus University, Department of Biology, DKK 6m


The Effects of Ice Nucleation Proteins on Arctic Clouds (ICARUS)

The influence of aerosols on cloud properties is one the least understood drivers of climate change in the Arctic. During the ICARUS project, I and my co-workers will investigate microbial aerosols that are highly efficient in forming cloud ice. The data that we will generate will be included in climate models to help us understand how biological aerosols impact the Arctic climate. The grant will fund the development of an ice-nucleation laboratory, one PhD student and two postdocs. 

Roberta Sinatra
IT University, Department of Computer Science, DKK 6m


Bias Explained: Pushing Algorithmic Fairness with Models and Experiments 

Algorithms for ranking scientific information have an issue: they use citations, which are ingrained with human biases. Therefore, their output is also biased, creating inequalities and raising concerns of discrimination. This project aims to uncover the mathematical bias mechanisms that drive different citation trajectories given same quality, and to use them for creating fair algorithms. The grant will allow the recruitment of one PhD student and two postdocs. 

Felix Trier
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Energy, DKK 8m


Spinning Around: New generation of Spin-Information Transistors

When footballs are kicked by a particular technique, the football can be made to rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise. These two possible rotation directions also exist for the electron, which is known as its spin. This project will investigate how electron spin instead of electron charge can be used in electronics.  The use of electron spin will allow for the realisation of low-energy electronics beneficial to a world with increasing energy demand. The grant will fund the recipient and two PhD students. 

Kasper Vita Kristensen
Aarhus University, Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering, DKK 6m


Indoor Chemistry and Air Quality

Humans spend 90 % of their time indoors; consequently, human exposure to most air pollutants is dominated by indoor rather than outdoor conditions. Despite this, scientific understanding of indoor chemistry and its relation to indoor air quality is lacking. This project will elucidate the sources and processes that influence the chemical composition of indoor air and will aid in the development of healthy indoor environments. The grant will fund the recipient, one PhD student and one postdoc. 

Virtual presentation and networks

The 19 Villum Young Investigators will be celebrated virtually on 22 January 2021 in connection with VILLUM FONDEN’s presentation of the Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award in Science and Technology.

The researchers will also have the opportunity to take part in a special Villum Young Investigator community with networks and seminars, for example on research management.

Michel M.H. Kristensen
Senior Adviser, Head of programme, VILLUM FONDEN
+ 45 29 41 78 89
Anna Høxbro Bak
Communications Adviser, THE VELUX FOUNDATIONS
+45 22 64 03 55