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Empa: Where Research Excellence Meets Innovation Living Labs for Materials Science And Technology

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Empa is not your typical research center where the innovation takes place inside the walls of high-tech laboratories. What really makes Empa special is their unique materials science and technology demonstrator platforms that allow you to live in, visualise, interact and test the outcomes of your research.

Empa – Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology focuses on application oriented materials science and technology, with the goal of knowledge development and the creation of marketable innovations from research. It is one of the six members of the National Alliance of Research Institutes and the Federal Institutes of Technology, ETH Domain, a strategic network affiliated to the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research.

Despite being situated in three small Alpine towns – Dubendorf (main), St Gallen, and Thun campuses – spread across Switzerland, the center produces world-class research and innovation with a team of over 1,000 staff members. Empa engages in more than 150 new research projects each year and at any given point could be involved in as many as 250 projects financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) and the EU framework programmes. More than 60% of all its research projects are launched in cooperation with industry partners, where industrially “commissioned” research and services account for around 10% of all activities.

The innovation process occurs in a unique way at Empa. The institution accelerates the innovation process through a set of ‘demonstrators’, or Research and Technology Transfer Platforms (RTTPs) as living environments, in which researchers collaborate with industry partners to find solutions in building, mobility, and energy sector. For instance the NEST unit name Vision Wood, hosts Master students as tenants in its laboratory apartment, involving them in the project as research subjects to test the wooden construction materials used in the indoor and outdoor decoration. Similarly, SELF, an independent living and working unit for two people, is designed to develop and test innovative energy technologies.

The most recent tech collaborations of Empa include development of a 3D model of human placenta to filter harmful substances that might harm fetuses, fertility app paired with a sensor wristband that detects women’s fertile days, and a watchstrap with motion sensors that can control mobile devices, e.g. drones, or garage doors. A follow up research is still at its infancy to integrate the sensors in a plaster that will make the bands redundant.

It is this ability to demonstrate research outcomes, which makes Empa so unique, as students, researchers and industry collaborators can not only see the results of the research, but ‘live’ in these innovation labs testing and interacting with the innovative outcomes.

The success of the institution becoming a key player in the Swiss research and innovation ecosystem is not a coincidence. Empa has a set of specific frameworks in place, whilst simple in their description, shouldn’t be underestimated in their ability to create the trust required for research collaboration and resultantly, a sustainable environment for innovation. A fine combination of external and internal factors – a strong national innovation system steered by the closely cooperating network of ETH Domain, stable basic funding financing about 60% of its total budget, strategic staff recruitment policies, and continuity and maintenance of the institutional memory ensured by permanent contracts signed with 40% of the employees – all contribute to the significant impact Empa makes, at local, national, and global levels in the field of materials science.

Want to learn more about Empa? You can find the full detailed case study here.