They explore the unknown: meet the 2023 Villum Investigators

From habitable planets in distant galaxies to stronger 3D-printed metal components. With grants totalling DKK 352 million, 11 top researchers can pursue their brightest ideas.

The Villum Investigator programme provides grants of up to DKK 40 million to experienced and internationally renowned researchers who conduct world-class research. The programme is announced every other year in an open competition. The next application deadline will be in September 2024. Read more about the programme 

A career of pioneering research and grants ranging from DKK 25 to 40 million to kickstart the next scientific breakthroughs. This is the common denominator for the selected star researchers, who will now be given the title Villum Investigators and the opportunity to give their best ideas free reign at a Danish university.

Attracting more talented researchers to the country creates great value for society, says Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund: 

“It’s crucial that we have highly qualified researchers in Denmark whose knowledge can help move our society forward. This is necessary, for example, if we are to succeed in the green transition. So I look forward to following the work of the new Villum Investigators. Congratulations to the 11 top researchers.”


The Danish research community will also benefit greatly from the researchers, who with the grant will have time to immerse themselves in their research: 

“The Villum Investigator programme gives researchers the time and funding their ideas deserve. Giving researchers the freedom to pursue their curiosity is crucial for attracting some of the world’s top talents to Danish universities, where they can make valuable contributions to research and society with their groundbreaking knowledge,” says Jens Kann-Rasmussen, chair of VILLUM FONDEN’s board

For Professor Martin Bizzarro, who heads the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Star and Planet Formation, the grant provides the freedom to shed new light on the conditions for life in the universe:

“The unique flexibility of the Villum Investigator grant will give me the freedom to move into unexplored territory and challenge the limits of our current knowledge of planetary systems and their habitability. Driven by curiosity, my hope is to understand how habitable planets like the Earth are formed and develop the necessary conditions for life to evolve and flourish.”

Danish base for international elite

On 17 April 2023, the Villum Investigators will be celebrated at a ceremony at the VILLUM Window Collection in Søborg, which will be attended by the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Christina Egelund, among others.

The 11 investigators were selected from among 52 applicants after a thorough evaluation process in which internationally recognised researchers in VILLUM FONDEN’s working group for technical and natural sciences selected 22 applicants for independent peer review, interviews, and subsequent approval by the foundation’s board.

The 11 selected researchers represent departments at the University of Copenhagen, DTU, the University of Southern Denmark, and Aarhus University.

Villum Investigators 2023. Download the photo here

Daan van Aalten
Aarhus University, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, DKK 40 mio

Fundamental principles of protein O-GlcNAcylation 

Proteins are the molecular machines that carry out all processes in the cells of living organisms. To allow multicellular organisms, such as animals, to develop from a single fertilised egg to birth, proteins need to rapidly respond to signals from neighbouring cells. This is achieved by small chemical modifications of proteins that act as on/off switches. My lab works on one such switch, a sugar called O-GlcNAc, that is absolutely essential for the development of animal embryos, for reasons that are not clear. Using the Villum Investigator grant my team will investigate which proteins carry this O-GlcNAc switch and how that changes their activity, how this leads to changes in communication between cells in a developing embryo, and how proteins are selected to carry this modification.  

Darko Zibar
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Electro, DKK 30 mio

Power-efficient fiber-optic communication

Internet traffic is experiencing an explosive growth. As a result, the fiber-optic communication systems, on which the Internet is based, will use a fifth of all the world’s electricity by 2030. This is not sustainable. Immediate actions are urgently needed to make future fiber-optic communication systems as power-efficient as possible. The ultimate limit of the minimum required power to transmit and recover the information is set by the amount of internal or fundamental noise associated with the transmitter and the receiver. My vision with the Villum Investigator grant is to build a world-class inter-disciplinary research environment that will use artificial intelligence to realize the transmitter and the receiver that exhibit the minimum amount of permissible noise, and find the most power-efficient approach for information transport over the fiber-optic networks.

Donald Canfield
University of Southern Denmark, Department of Biology, DKK 30 mio

Center for Environmental and Biological Evolution

The modern Earth is teeming with plant and animal life and with abundant levels of atmospheric oxygen to breath. The early Earth, however, was absent of visible life, including plants and animals, and it had an oxygen-free atmosphere. How did the Earth evolve to its present state? The answer lies in the chemical and biological signals left in ancient rocks.  EnBiE will use novel approaches to read these rocks. We will explore new ways to both quantify oxygen levels of ancient atmospheres and to unravel the history of biological evolution. In addition, we will use experimental studies to understand how oxygen levels may have impacted plant and animal evolution. Overall, we aim to unravel fundamental relationships between the biological and chemical evolution of the Earth.

Dorte Juul Jensen
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Electro, DKK 30 mio

Microstructural engineering of additive manufactured metals

Currently, additive manufacturing (AM) is revolutionizing the design, production and repair of metallic components. However, the huge potential of microstructural engineering, which is extensively used in conventional manufacturing, has not been systematically explored in metal AM. In this Villum MicroAM project, we aim to introduce microstructural engineering into the metal AM field. This will set the stage for:

  • optimizing metals microstructures in-situ during the AM process, as well as ex-situ during post-AM treatments
  • predictions of  the changes in properties, while AM components are in use.


Voids are hard to avoid, and local stress are always present when manufacturing components through AM. An additional main task of MicroAM is thus to incorporate the individual and combined effects of voids and local stress into microstructural engineering. While this represents a significant  fundamental challenge, it also opens new design opportunities.

Jens Hjorth
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 30 mio

Time in astrophysics

Our project seeks to explore enigmas of astrophysics related to the concept of time, including the discovery of transient events in the distant Universe. Specifically, we aim to shed light on what astrophysical structure formation can teach us about the flow of time, as well as questions regarding the age of the Universe and the formation of galaxies after the Big Bang. We will investigate whether these questions reflect fundamental problems with our cosmological world model or if they can be explained by complex astrophysical processes. Our research will rely on observations obtained through modern satellites and telescopes, and we will analyze large amounts of data using high-performance computers. Our diverse team values creative thinking and an inclusive work environment.

Martin Bizzarro
University of Copenhagen, Globe Institute, DKK 30 mio

The planetary habitability project (PLANETS)

The Solar System has long been thought to represent the only habitable planetary system. This has been challenged by the discovery that planets orbiting Sun-like stars are common in our Galaxy, raising the possibility that Earth-like planets, and perhaps life, exists elsewhere. These findings have fostered the concept of planetary habitability, which defines the conditions at the surface of a planet required for life to develop. PLANETS aims to understand how the formation process of rocky planets modulates their volatile inventory, atmospheric composition, and pathways towards the chemical complexity critical to life. Our overarching goal is to develop a unified theory to explain the composition of the Solar System’s rocky planets, allowing us to assess the potential habitability of planets beyond our Solar System.

Mikkel Thorup
University of Copenhagen, Department of Computer Science (DIKU), DKK 29 mioK

Basic Algorithms Research Copenhagen (BARC) 

Basic Algorithms Research Copenhagen (BARC) seeks fundamental understanding of the complexity of algorithmic problems, i.e., how computers can solve problems with minimal resources. The research is theoretical, but with a strong record for real-word impact. We attract top talent from around the world to join our ambitious, creative, and collaborative environment. By exploring high-impact areas with significant gaps in our understanding, we strive to make surprising discoveries that challenge the status quo. For instance, random hash functions are integral to data analysis, but there are significant gaps between theoretical understanding and practical implementation. Our mission is to bridge such divides and establish fundamental limits on algorithmic efficiency.

Niklas Elmqvist
Aarhus University, Department of Computer Science, DKK 39 mio

Center for Anytime & Anywhere Analytics

We are on the cusp of a new age of enlightenment in human history, one enabled by emerging mobile and immersive technology, radical advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the ready access to data collected anywhere and accessed everywhere. Founded by a Villum Investigator grant, the Center for Anytime & Anywhere Analytics (CA3) will promote a data-driven, immersive, and ubiquitous form of analytics where people are empowered to work together to make sense of massive data using the next generation of XR (Extended Reality) technologies. The center is led by Prof. Niklas Elmqvist, who is joining the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University, and will tackle societal challenges in manufacturing, scientific research, and higher education.

Ole Sigmund
Technical University of Denmark, DTU Construct, DKK 29 mio

Architected Materials and Structures with Randomness And Defects (AMSTRAD)

Randomness is often observed in microstructures of biological systems, whereas materials architected by humans usually exhibit almost perfect periodicity. So what is optimal - random or periodic? The answer may be simple in that natural processes and evolution are fundamentally random and thus result in random distributions, whereas limited human insight, lack of efficient numerical modelling and design methods or limitations in manufacturing processes, favor simple periodicity. On the other hand, if appropriately designed, randomness and defects may be harnessed to provide for future’s ever more efficient materials and devices. The AMSTRAD project develops procedures for optimizing materials in order to answer the question of optimality of randomness in physical domains, ranging from mechanics over fluids and acoustics to quantum optomechanical systems.

Paul Nelson
Aarhus University, Department of Mathematics, DKK 25 mio

Estimates for L-functions

L-functions are mathematical objects that help us understand the prime numbers and their distribution. Though studied for centuries, they remain the subject of fundamental open problems, such as the famous Riemann Hypothesis. A related problem is to determine how quickly L-functions grow.  Surprisingly, this connects to many other basic questions in number theory (such as the distribution of integral points on spheres) and quantum chaos (such as the distribution of certain high energy quantum particles). Recent advances on this problem draw from a range of mathematical fields. We will bring together experts to develop new methods for rigorously analyzing L-functions, with the goal of gaining deeper insights into these mysterious objects and tackling outstanding open problems.

Tanya Zelevinsky
University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr Institute, DKK 40 mio

Molecular and atomic clocks for fundamental science

Our understanding of the physical world is not entirely complete.  For example, we don’t know the nature of dark matter, the reasons for the relative lack of antimatter in the universe, or how gravity behaves at the small scales of quantum physics.  One of the most precise tools is atomic clocks, which use a fine spectral line of an atom to accurately measure the ticking rate.  Our projects aim to develop clocks whose ticking rate is based on vibrations in molecules composed of two bound atoms.  Based on a different physical mechanism than atomic clocks, molecular clocks can help test our knowledge of fundamental physical forces and search for new ones that may arise at very small spatial scales.  These goals inspire us to develop useful techniques of controlling molecules at the quantum level.

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