The Villum Investigators 2021 are fuelled by curiosity

Ten leading researchers have been awarded a total of DKK 313 million to realise their best ideas. Their projects include battery technology, string theory and tomorrow’s telecommunications.

The ten Villum Investigators, who have been given grants of DKK 25-40 million, all have at least ten years of groundbreaking research behind them. With these grants they can explore new dimensions of their research areas, which range from synthetic biology to verifying the safety of self-driving cars.

“VILLUM FONDEN’s grants help ensure that we have leading researchers in Denmark who push the boundaries of knowledge in their fields. That is what moves us forward. And it’s something we need right now, for example when it comes to moving towards a more sustainable society. I look forward to following the work of the new Villum Investigators, and I congratulate them all,” says Minister of Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen. 

Free reins for the best ideas

According to Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN’s board, an important aspect of the grants is the freedom they give researchers:

“The Villum Investigator programme gives some of the world’s best researchers time and space to pursue their best ideas. The grants give the ten Investigators freedom to carry out leading research and generate important and groundbreaking knowledge that benefits both research and our society,” says Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN’s board.

For Barbara Ann Halkier, professor and head of the basic research centre DynaMo at the University of Copenhagen, the title of Villum Investigator provides an opportunity to let curiosity guide her research into the world of plants:

“The grant gives me a unique opportunity to pursue my dream of understanding plants’ transport processes and their marvellous chemical language right down to the molecular level. This is knowledge which is vital for the well-being of plants and their ability to interact with their surroundings, and which can contribute to sustainable agriculture in the future.”

International level in Danish framework

The ten Investigators have been selected from 72 candidates according to international practice with an assessment of the applications by VILLUM FONDEN’s working group, an assessment by three independent peers, and a final selection by the foundation’s board.

The grants will run over six years. The ten selected researchers represent departments at the University of Copenhagen, Aalborg University, the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University.

On 27 April 2021, the Villum Investigators will be celebrated at a ceremony at the VILLUM Window Collection in Søborg, which will be attended by the Minister of Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, among others.

Villum Investigators 2021

Meet the Villum Investigators 2021. Download the photo.

Anja-Verena Mudring
Aarhus University, Department of Chemistry, DKK 40m

Enabling Technologies for A Sustainable Future: Ionic Liquids as Transformative Tools in Nanomaterials Synthesis

Nanomaterials have become indispensable for modern life. Many advanced technologies critically depend on nanomaterials with engineered structures and properties. Technological borders could be pushed further if more powerful tools for the synthesis of nanomaterials could be made available.

This project aims at the exploration of how ionic liquids (room temperature molten salts) direct the formation of nanomaterials at the atomic level. As a result, this will allow the design of ionic liquids as molecular tools for the tailored creation of a desired nanostructure. Furthermore, this transformative synthetic access will open up the door to new materials and green technologies to meet the challenges of a sustainable society.

Barbara Ann Halkier
University of Copenhagen, Department of Plant and Environmental Science, DKK 30m

Plant transportomics

Transport of metabolites across cellular borders is essential for plant fitness and survival, and has proven important in controlling key quality traits in agriculture. Yet, the function of thousands of transporters is largely unknown. We will create a first-of-its-kind transportomics database and determine the function of the transporters in the model plant thale cress using plant extracts as substrates. This has potential to revolutionize our understanding of transporter function in plants.

We will decode the chemical language of plants by mapping the metabolites exuded and the transporters present at the root and leaf epidermis during stress conditions when intense communication occurs. The knowledge gained and molecular tools generated will have application in sustainable agriculture.

Kim Guldstrand
Aalborg University, Department of Computer Science, DKK 30m

‘S4OS: Scalable analysis and Synthesis of Safe, Small, Secure and Optimal Strategies for Cyber-Physical Systems’

Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) are emerging in almost every area of modern society, from intelligent transport, smart energy, smart cities, to smart health care. The rapid growth of machine-learning techniques in CPS leads to better products in terms of performance, efficiency and usability. However, CPSs are often safety critical (e.g., self-driving cars and medical devices), and the need for verification against potential fatal accidents and security attacks is self-evident and of key importance.

S4OS will develop a new generation of mathematically well-founded scalable methods and tools, integrating machine learning and model-based verification techniques in a unified framework for constructing optimal cyber-physical systems that are guaranteed to satisfy crucial safety and security constraints, and can be certified to do so.

Kristian Sommer Thygesen
Technical University of Denmark, Department of Physics, DKK 30m

Data-Driven Discovery of Functional 2D Materials

The development of materials that can lead to new technological advances has traditionally been a slow and expensive process based largely on empiricism. Recently, it has become possible using supercomputers to simulate materials down to the smallest atomic scale and thereby predict the properties of a material with a given chemical composition before it is made in the laboratory. With his VILLUM project, Kristian Thygesen will develop software that combines advanced materials computations with artificial intelligence to enable the design of materials with specific, desired properties more effectively and rationally. The method will be used to search for new types of nano-materials composed of just a few atomic layers (2D materials) that can be used as building blocks for the next generation of electronic components or perhaps future quantum computers.    

Milena Corredig
Aarhus University, Department of Food Science, DKK 30m

Future proofing processing of biopolymers in food (REPROOF) 

Our food system needs to be more sustainable and robust. It is critical to developing smart strategies to process raw materials into the foods of the future, without compromising safety, stability, appeal, minimizing the use of resources and waste and optimize their nutritional value. Only an integrated food systems approach can deliver fundamental knowledge and new smart processing approaches to control the dynamics of the interactions between complex food biomolecules based on the soft material science, with a specific focus on structure and function relationships in relevant multiphase systems. This internationally leading program will enable more resilient food processes, and inspire a new generation of scientists working at the interface between engineering, biochemistry and food physics.

Ole Bang
Technical University of Denmark, Department of Fotonik, DKK 30m

Table-top synchrotrons

I have an in-built desire to understand nonlinear physical phenomea and control them for advanced technical applications that benefit humanity. This is why I work in so-called supercontinuum generation in optical fibers the size of a human hair - it contains a plethora of beautiful nonlinear physical effects, such as generation of violent rogue waves that on the ocean destroy ships. My ambitious vision is to develop novel optical fibers that guide both ultra-short and ultra-long wavelengths, and develop new laser technology and theoretical understanding to control the violent supercontinuum process in them. This will allow me to develop a user facility of table-top lasers covering the wavelength region from 33 to 15,000 nanometers with a brightness order of magnitude higher than 50,000 times larger synchrotrons.

Petar Popovski
Aalborg University, Department of Electronic Systems, DKK 30m

Wireless Architectures for intelligent and Trusted connectivity in the posT-5G ERa (WATER)

The objective of WATER is to create concepts, theories, and technology for intelligent and trusted wireless connectivity beyond 5G. The research vision is motivated by three trends: (1) The continuous increase in the number and heterogeneity of connections; (2) The wireless infrastructure will evolve towards more openness and disaggregation; (3) A growing number of industries will require reliable, resilient, and predictable wireless connectivity. WATER pursues this vision with four key concepts and ideas: (1) Redesign communication models and protocols to account for the ever-increasing intelligence at the devices; (2) Make learning and predictability an integral part of spectrum allocation and usage; (3) Enrich the communication models with the new developments in physics, such as electromagnetic metamaterials; (4) Enable data exchange by flexibly trading off between privacy and extraction of value from the data.

Remus Teodorescu
Aalborg University, Department of Energy Technology, DKK 28.5m

Smart Battery 

Smart Battery is a disrupting multidisciplinary project aiming on transforming the battery systems by adding artificial intelligence and cell-level rest time management.

In EV application, the Cloud will be used to on-line retrain the initial lifetime model to get it personalized and improved.

The project will positively impact society in the electrification of the transportation sector and in the residential storage as 2nd life application, saving manufacturing cost and CO2 emissions. The scientific impact will be significant by redefining the philosophy of battery system making them chemistry- independent, aging-balanced, fault –tolerant and truly modular in both power and data. It will open for new research in the combined areas of batteries, power electronics and AI.

Vitor Cardoso
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 40m

Illuminating the dark universe with gravitational waves

We spend a lifetime carrying the weight of gravity, one of the fundamental interactions in the Universe. Why do things fall, how do they fall? The quest to understand gravity has broadened our knowledge of the Universe, giving us a new vision of our planet, of the Solar system and beyond.

The direct detection of gravitational waves opened a new era, and a new window to a hitherto invisible Universe, one where black holes - the last frontier in physics - play a key role. In the same way that atomic spectroscopy drove the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, black holes will allow us to test and understand General Relativity in an unprecedented way. This project will explore black holes as engines of discovery for fundamental physics, pushing the boundaries of science.

Vivek Shende
University of Southern Denmark, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, DKK 25m

Mathematics of the topological open string 

String theory has introduced into mathematics many new ideas, and perhaps even more remarkably, new relationships between old ideas. For instance, it turns out that we learn new things about knots in ordinary three-dimensional space by considering this space as a boundary condition for the surface that a string-theorist's string traces out in a six dimensional space; the knot being how the string arrives at the boundary. Another remarkable relationship concerns how this kind of geometry of strings and boundaries can be translated into the geometry of an entirely different kind - that concerned with polynomial equations - on an entirely different space, related to the original by a process in which, rather mysteriously, short distances are exchanged for long! These are the sort of phenomena Shende will pursue as a Villum Investigator. 

Anders Smith
Senior Adviser, Head of programme, VILLUM FONDEN
+45 29 66 70 86
Emil Kaas Rasmussen
Communications Adviser, THE VELUX FOUNDATIONS
+45 29 66 67 32