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Finnish researchers successful in latest ERC grant round

1 March 2012 

The latest round of ERC Advanced Grants from the European Research Council saw three Finnish grant winners: Academy Professor Olli Ikkala from Aalto University, Professor Heli Jantunen from the University of Oulu and Professor Ilpo Vattulainen from Tampere University of Technology. In addition, Researcher Svetlana Berdyugine received funding for a research project to be carried out in Germany. ERC Advanced Grant funding targets researchers who have already established themselves as independent research leaders. The funding amounts to some EUR 2.5 million per grant and is awarded for up to five years.

The success rate in the fourth Europe-wide competition for ERC Advanced Grants remained stable at 13 per cent. Finnish universities and research institutes submitted 71 proposals in response to the call. In total, the ERC granted funding to 294 top senior researchers. The ERC’s grants are open to all domains.

Simulating nature to produce functional materials

Academy Professor Olli Ikkala received funding for his research on biomimetic nanomaterials. Biomimetics is about finding ways to mimic natural material formation. Ikkala and his team of researchers have specialised in the self-assembly of macromolecules and in making use of this process when producing functional materials.

The research team is particularly interested in self-assembled strong and light nanocomposite structures found in nature, such as the nacreous matter underneath seashells and biological fibres resembling silk and nanocellulose.

Ikkala’s team has already succeeded in producing a variety of nanomaterials. For example, they were the first to introduce a strong and lightweight nacre-mimetic material that is quite easy to produce. In addition, they have also produced new kinds of flexible and functional, ultralight and porous materials, or aerogels.

Professor Heli Jantunen and her team received funding for their research on the development of novel electronics materials for use in sensors, wireless telecommunications components and energy harvesters, for instance. The team’s objective is to develop materials with structures that can affordably be printed on paper or plastic or on three-dimensional surfaces, or embedded in other structures.

The challenge is to develop the materials and manufacturing processes so that the required temperatures in manufacturing are lower than at present. Current electronics materials require very high manufacturing temperatures and therefore do not lend well to multimaterial applications. The new manufacturing processes will also increase energy efficiency.

Researching cell membrane activity

Professor Vattulainen and his research team received funding for their research on utilising computational biophysics to explore protein-lipid interactions. This is particularly important in cell membranes, where membrane proteins and receptors account for about half of all cell activity. Vattulainen’s team aims to examine how lipids found in cell membranes regulate protein functions under crowded conditions.

In addition, the research focuses on lipoproteins that transport cholesterol and other lipids in the body. Lipoproteins are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, even though the effect that lipids have on protein functions still remains poorly understood.

Raising the quality of research in Europe

The European Research Council funds researcher-driven, cutting-edge scientific research. The projects to be funded are selected on the basis of their scientific quality. The aim of ERC funding schemes is to further improve the quality of European research and to boost Europe’s global competitiveness.

ERC funding is targeted to individual researchers who set up a research team to carry out the proposed research project. The ERC awards two types of grants: ERC Starting Grants, aimed at supporting young investigators to develop independent careers, and ERC Advanced Grants, intended for established and independent research leaders.

Most of the Finnish ERC grant winners thus far have received funding from the Academy of Finland in some stage of their research career. The winners have included Postdoctoral Researchers, Academy Research Fellows and Academy Professors, all funding schemes of the Academy. Many have also been researchers in an Academy-funded Centre of Excellence in Research. The Academy has also supported researchers vying for ERC grants by targeting funding to those who have done well in ERC calls but still not been awarded grants, and by arranging interview training for the second round of ERC Starting Grants.

More information:
Academy Professor Olli Ikkala, olli.ikkala(at)aalto.fi, tel. +358 50 410 0454
Professor Heli Jantunen, heli.jantunen(at)ee.oulu.fi, tel. +358 40 512 0861
Professor Ilpo Vattulainen, ilpo.vattulainen(at)tut.fi, tel. +358 400 510 592

Olli Ikkala’s research: http://www.aalto.fi/en/current//news/view/2012-02-07-002/

Heli Jantunen’s research: www.oulu.fi/hermes/2011/16/erc.html (in Finnish)

Ilpo Vattulainen’s research: http://interface.tut.fi/articles/2011/1/Secrets_of_cells_revealed

ERC: http://erc.europa.eu/

Academy of Finland Communications
Riitta Tirronen
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tel. +358 9 7748 8369
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