Celebrating a vintage year in 2019

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EPFL held a series of events to mark its 50th anniversary throughout 2019. The past year also saw a host of scientific breakthroughs, ground-breaking initiatives, stunning achievements and notable wins.

As one year ends and another begins, this is a good time to reflect on what has been a truly remarkable 12 months for EPFL. For starters, the School celebrated its 50th anniversary as a federal institute of technology with a year-long program of special events. Yet it’s been a busy year on other fronts, too: EPFL’s students and researchers have continued to push the boundaries of science; the School has launched a string of initiatives in teaching and research; startups and spin-offs have gone from strength to strength; and the awards and honors have come thick and fast. There have been so many highlights that it’s impossible to list them all. But here are some of the standout moments of 2019.

Taking research as our starting point, robotics, artificial intelligence and energy technologies took center stage this year. The robot cast list reads like something from a science-fiction movie: biocompatible elastic microrobots, robots that recreate the gait of extinct animals, gummy-like robots that stimulate biological tissue, robots that enable bees and fish to talk to each other, robot-ants that can communicate, fly-like robots designed by artificial intelligence, and even a robotic insect that can survive being flattened by a fly swatter.

Turning to energy technologies, the honor roll is no less impressive: photovoltaic panels that use snow to create more solar power in the winter, more energy-efficient cruise ships, energy-producing buildings, a device that generates hydrogen by concentrating sunlight, a system that turns wastewater sludge into energy and mineral salts, and perovskite solar cells tested for real-world performance.

The year’s breakthroughs in artificial intelligence have been just as remarkable: an AI-based app to save bees, another to predict when and where lightning will strike, an AI-driven system that uncovers security flaws, algorithms developed to study the dynamics of network structures using Wikipedia or to detect outside influences on the media, a solution for detecting deepfakes, and a big data toolkit for precision medicine.

Other research highlights include a strong, lightweight concrete, a self-healing advanced composite, a photonic chip for at-home disease detection, a metal-organic framework that mimics DNA, a chip to measure vacuums, an important step towards understanding tumor biology, bioprinted living tissue, and a model of the flight of dandelion seeds.

Researchers aside, students have played their part in raising EPFL’s profile on the international stage this year. In July, the EPFLoop team headed to Los Angeles for the Hyperloop Pod Competition, organized by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, where they secured an impressive third-place finish. In August, an EPFL team walked away with the energy efficiency award for their lightweight boat in the HydroContest challenge, held on Lake Neuchâtel in Yverdon-les-Bains. And in November, the EPFL bioengineering team won the grand prize of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for their diagnostic test for grapevine disease. EPFL students will take part in no fewer than ten interdisciplinary challenges in 2020, as well as the international IGLUNA project.

Collaborations with other institutions

Teaming up with leading partners is yet another hallmark of EPFL’s performance - and it’s been a particularly busy year on this front as well. In 2019, the School joined forces with the Defitech Foundation, Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) to set up NeuroRestore, a new center aimed at restoring lost neurological function. Other highlights included a new joint Master’s degree in Cyber Security with ETH Zurich, a cooperation agreement with the Canton of Vaud for specific initiatives related to digitalization and innovative teaching methods in EPFL’s core subjects, and the Enterprise for Society Center (E4S), a joint initiative with UNIL and IMD to train future managers to meet the challenges of sustainability and social responsibility.

The year has also been a resounding success for EPFL’s startups. Two spin-offs, Flyability and Lunaphore, took first and second places in the 2019 TOP 100 Swiss Startup Awards, ClearSpace was selected to lead a major European Space Agency (ESA) space debris capture and deorbiting project, and Learn To Forecast (L2F) launched the Giotto project, an open-source, free-of-charge library that pushes AI forward by making it more reliable and intuitive.

Honors and appointments

And there’s more. EPFL appointed 37 new professors in 2019, including 15 women, and the School celebrated 1,028 new Master’s graduates in October. That same month, Claudia R. Binder - a professor at the Laboratory for Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS) - was named the new dean of the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC); she will take up this position on 1 January 2020. Also in 2019, Michael Grätzel, who directs EPFL’s Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces, claimed the number-one spot in a new ranking of the world’s top 100,000 scientists across all fields. The ranking method is based on new, more accurate standardized citation metrics developed by scientists led by Stanford University.