EPFLinnovators turns PhD students into genuine entrepreneurs
The EPFLinnovators program – designed to give PhD students experience in the business world – has issued a new call for projects.
Laura Hermans and Professor Pavan Ramdya, director of the Neuroengineering Laboratory. © Alain Herzog
“Too much knowledge is forgotten because PhD students can’t turn their thesis findings into concrete applications. Personally, I would like my research to have a positive impact on society by addressing up-to-date real-world challenges,” says Harry Vourtsis, a PhD student in robotics, control and intelligent systems. Originally from Greece, Vourtsis was selected last year for the EPFLinnovators program, where he will apply his research in a business setting.
The EPFLinnovators program was introduced in 2017 and today includes around 20 PhD students. Participants take classes in entrepreneurship in addition to their regular course schedule and must complete a six-month to two-year internship with a company. Over 500 students applied for the program this year; around 60 have been shortlisted by the Doctoral School Program Committees. Thesis directors have until 30 April to interview applicants and outline a proposal for research to be carried out in association with a company. An international selection panel will select the 15 best proposals for enrollment in the program.
“EPFLinnovators gives researchers first-hand experience in transferring knowledge to industry,” says Laura Hermans, who is also in the program. She works in Professor Pavan Ramdya’s Neuroengineering Laboratory. Hermans’ research aims to identify the neuronal mechanisms at work in Aedes aegypti mosquitos when they are repelled by certain smells. This sort of insight should help scientists develop more effective repellants and thereby reduce the transmission of Zika virus, dengue and yellow fever – all of which are carried by Aedes aegypti.
Getting inside the heads of mosquitos
Hermans’ first step will be to generate images of the neuronal activity that occurs when this type of mosquito is either attracted to or repelled by different smells. This research will be carried out as part of a six-month internship at Firmenich International SA. According to Professor Ramdya, “the biggest hurdle to technology transfer is often financial, and business leaders really focus on risk calculations. The EPFLinnovators program gives companies an opportunity to take those risks and test out different research applications.” And by talking with people in industry, PhD students get a better grasp of the constraints that businesses face. “It’s really important for PhD students to interact with the ‘real world’ and not be locked in the laboratory all the time”, says Vourtsis, who is working on developing safe and resilient drones that can perform long-distance operations. He will do a six-month internship at senseFly – a spin-off of EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, which is headed by Vourtsis’ supervisor Dario Floreano.
Safe, efficient drones
Vourtsis is designing a drone that will be able to operate safely in populated areas; it will have foldable wings – for protection during take-off and landing – as well as optimal horizontal flight characteristics. The main danger when a drone flies near people comes from its moving parts, especially the motors and the propellers. “The EPFLinnovators program will give me an opportunity to present my idea to investors, fundraisers and startup incubators and assess its market potential,” says Vourtsis.
Laureline Duvillard, Educational Affairs
Harry Vourtsis is designing a drone that will be able to operate safely in populated areas. © Alain Herzog
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 754354.
For more information:
Professors who would like to supervise a PhD student under EPFLinnovators are invited to attend an information session on Tuesday, 19 March at 12:15 pm in the Research Office (BI A2 468).
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