Postdoc program to train sustainability-oriented leaders

EPFL’s newest postdoc fellowship program – EPFLeaders4impact – will fund innovative research projects that address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Funded in part by the EU, the program is designed to encourage joint R&D among EPFL laboratories, businesses and non-profit organizations.

EPFL’sAssociated Vice Presidency for Research (AVP-R), together with the Vice Presidency for Innovation (VPI), has unveiled EPFLeaders4impact, a new fellowship program for international postdocs. It is being co-funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework program for research and innovation and will grant between 40 and 120 fellowships over the next five years through two application rounds.

EPFLeaders4impact is open to researchers who hold a PhD or have at least four years’ full-time experience in research. It’s open to applicants from any country, provided they haven’t lived in Switzerland for more than 12 of the 36 months preceding the deadline for their application round. “A number of studies have shown that universities gain a lot from bringing in researchers from abroad,” says Caroline Vandevyver, head of the Research Office. “The Horizon 2020 COFUND scheme give us an opportunity to try out this new kind of sustainability-oriented program that’s designed to build bridges between research and industry.”

In short, EPFLeaders4impact aims to attract talented scientists and engineers from around the world who want to leverage their technical know-how to promote sustainable development. “We’d like applicants to come with their own research ideas,” says Lucie Soulard, a project manager at the Research Office and one of the program’s designers. “But we also hope EPFL professors will use this as an opportunity to explore some of their own ideas that have been sitting on the back burner.”

EPFLeaders4impact stands out from other fellowship programs in several ways. “The idea is to encourage scientists and engineers to develop systems that work towards the SDGs,” says Vandevyver. “That will necessarily entail transferring their technology to industry. The success of our program will be measured not by the number of journal articles published, but rather by the number of startups created and licenses sold to businesses. This is a key difference from other fellowship programs.” Robert Giezendanner-Thoben, who manages industry affairs at the VPI, adds: “The postdocs selected for the program will also receive support from the VPI. They’ll be able to take classes on various innovation-related issues and take part in EPFL initiatives like the Startup Launchpad and EnabledByDesign. On our end, the priority will be to remain flexible and adapt the program to postdocs’ needs by providing the right assistance at the right time for each individual or project selected.”

Another important requirement of the EPFLeaders4impact program is that postdocs must work jointly with a non-academic organization, such as a business or NGO. “Since our goal is to transfer technology to society, it’s essential that the postdocs team up with an organization that can get their inventions to market,” says Giezendanner-Thoben. “The technology developed under our program must be sustainable, manufacturable on an industrial scale, and meet a genuine market need. That’s why we emphasize collaboration with organizations outside the academic world.” In addition to providing fellowships, EPFLeaders4impact aims to train the next generation of sustainability-oriented leaders.

The first application round is already under way and will close on 31 January. The second will open immediately afterwards and run until 2 May 2022. The fellowships can last 12, 18, 24 or 36 months depending on the specific technology and research project, and will provide up to €2,740 of a postdoc’s monthly salary; the remainder, together with research costs, will be covered by the host laboratory.

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