With a total of 127 projects co-funded with a total amount of €45 million (+40%), Horizon 2020 projects with Luxembourg participants increased by 25% in 2020.
The number of new projects involving Luxembourg participants with funding from Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation funding programme, increased from 102 in 2019 to 127 in 2020 (+25%).
In the digital sector, 27 Luxembourg participations in projects funded under the ICT-Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies (LEIT) work programme, which together received €12.9 million of EU funding.
The success rate of Luxembourg applicants (19.57%) was the third best in the EU. Private companies participating in Horizon 2020 projects primarily cooperated with partners from Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, the UK and Belgium. Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency in Luxembourg, also helped 30 companies find postdoctoral experts from all over the world for collaboration in the context of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowships programme.
MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunities in Luxembourg
The European Commission funds excellent postdoctoral scientists conducting 2-year research projects at companies, research centres, NGOs and public administrations through the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowships.
Luxembourg organisations showed great interest in this initiative in 2020, and a high number of applications were received from researchers. A total of 88 proposals were submitted. Those submitted during the first half of the year had a success rate of 28%, which was the highest in the EU (the average was 15%). The ones that had been prepared with coaching from Luxinnovation had an even higher success rate: 42%.
Following the fast-track FNR COVID-19 Call in 2020, the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) has opened a new FNR COVID-19 funding instrument. There is no Call per se – projects can be submitted anytime from 21 April 2021 to 15 October 2021. Retained projects will be funded with up to 125,000 EUR for a maximum of 12 months.
In the past year, the global COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our society, and has impacted humanity on individual, economic, and social levels. All countries have been affected by this crisis and are starting to band together in order to fight the spread of this disease and minimise its devastating effects.
This specific FNR instrument to address COVID-19 is based on a fast-track “mechanism” that allows the support of research projects requiring an immediate start, e.g. in view of data collection or other work during the current crisis.
Projects are expected to directly impact the management of the crisis in the coming months, e.g. in the area of public health or monitoring of the pandemic. Thereby, projects should result in new, tangible insights concerning the current status of the crisis and/or provide actionable means to deal with it in the short-term.
FNR project selection and funding are carried out within a short period of time but without deviating from the principles of peer review.
A Research Luxembourg team has published an overview on the use of voice monitoring in Digital Health.
A voice reveals a lot about a person’s health: Does it sound strong? Does it sound weak? Is it hoarse? Are there indications of pain or fatigue? Modern digital technologies have recently made it possible to detect the smallest changes in the voice. But now, more research is needed to make the results of this voice monitoring usable for medical and diagnostic purposes.
From research to clinical practice
To this end, a team at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) led by Dr. Guy Fagherazzi, director of the Department of Population Health and head of the Deep Digital Phenotyping Research Unit, has written a review on the topic of “vocal biomarkers”. In this paper, the research team describes the state of the art of voice analysis for health purposes and the evaluation of speech recordings with the help of artificial intelligence. The scientists have also described a pipeline in which the corresponding techniques can be coordinated and used for all the way up to medical applications. They have thus created an important basis for systematically advancing voice analysis in the field of digital health and making it ready for use in clinical practice. The publication “Voice For Health: The Use Of Vocal Biomarkers From Research To Clinical Practice” was published on April 16th in the journal “Digital Biomarkers“.
In the age of analogue medicine, a person would go to the doctor when he or she felt unwell. The doctor would perform an examination, make a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment for the patient. Until the next visit to the doctor, there was a period during which no one knew the patient’s exact state of health. But times are changing, as Dr. Guy Fagherazzi says: “We can now also use digital technologies to monitor a patient’s condition between two visits to the doctor – and intervene if his or her condition should deteriorate.” According to Fagherazzi, a key to this is the human voice. “If a person’s state of health changes, this immediately affects the voice,” the scientist says. The changes may be barely perceptible to the human ear. But digital technologies and artificial intelligence can measurably detect them as useful markers for diagnostic and medical purposes.
Evaluating voice recordings with artificial intelligence
At LIH, this is an important new field of research. There are several projects addressing this topic, which hope to make digital voice analysis usable for combating COVID-19, among other things. “The first thing we did was to assess how far research in this field has already come,” says Fagherazzi. Together with his team and colleagues from the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), he conducted a comprehensive literature review. The researchers learned which techniques are suitable for recording voices and how the data can be collected and stored. They compiled current methods for processing and evaluating voice recordings with the help of artificial intelligence, and identified which vocal biomarkers – which characteristics of the voice – can already be used to diagnose diseases and determine the state of health.
Describing the current health status is, however, only half the journey the LIH researchers decided to embark on. “We have also described in our paper how the different techniques need to be brought together and developed so that the use of vocal biomarkers becomes relevant for clinical practice,” Fagherazzi says.
“We will now be taking these steps into practice within the framework of various clinical projects running at LIH and its cooperation partners”
Several projects in the framework of the COVID-19
Two of these projects are related to COVID-19: in Predi-COVID, COVID-19 patients and their relatives are being systematically examined in order to identify biomarkers and risk factors associated with disease severity. In CDCVA, a project led by the University of Luxembourg and LIST in association with LIH, approaches are being researched to detect COVID-19 using cough and voice analyses. A third project, called CoLive Voice, will soon be launched to collect voice samples from volunteers all over the world. The goal of CoLive Voice is to advance voice-based diagnosis and symptom monitoring for a wide range of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to mental health and Parkinson’s disease.
Through all these projects, Fagherazzi hopes not only to gain new insights into digital voice monitoring, but also to ensure proximity to clinical practice:
“Vocal biomarkers will only become useful if we have this connection with clinics.”
For the future, he has three groups of key stakeholders in mind. The first is doctors who will be able to use voice analysis to monitor the condition and symptoms of their patients remotely, even when they are at home. The second is people who want to monitor their own current state of health using an app and voice samples. And the third group is pharmaceutical companies that can use the new techniques to capture better real-life data on the condition of their participants and on the tolerability and efficacy of new active substances in clinical trials. “We have now published a key paper,” Fagherazzi says. “But,” he adds with a wry smile, “more than anything else, the paper is the basis for a lot of work that now lies ahead of us”.
How much do you know about the research sector in Luxembourg? Scientists are often very different from what people might expect. Watch the video to find out more.
There are a lot of stereotypes about research and scientists, the most common one being: the typical mad scientist with the lab coat or biologist using a microscope. But did you know that this is not an accurate image of science and scientists? From robots for children with autism to lunar rovers, drones, 3D printers or even giant plasma balls, the diversity of the research sector in Luxembourg is great.
Who participated in the video?
This video features research done in Luxembourg, starring scientists and science communicators from Luxembourg:
The video was created ahead of the 2021 edition of the FNR’s initiative “Chercheurs à l’école“, where researchers visit secondary school across Luxembourg to tell students about life as a researcher. Researchers were able to use the video in their presentations to the students to clear up stereotypes and give them a glimpse of the diverse areas where researchers play an important role.
The collection of tumour samples from various Luxembourg hospitals has enabled to launch several research projects, including European and international ones, which already present very promising results.
Initiated in 2011 by the University of Luxembourg and the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL) as a concerted action against colorectal cancer (CRC), the collection of tumour samples from various Luxembourg hospitals has enabled to launch several research projects which already present very promising results for the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.
Prof. Serge Haan and Dr. Elisabeth Letellier from the Department of Life Sciences and Medicine (DLSM) at the University of Luxembourg who launched the project in 2011 explain in more details the importance of such a collection.
How did the collection start?
In 2010, we gathered with Dr. Jos Even from the Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS) and the scientific management team from the IBBL to investigate colorectal cancer by setting up a high-quality tissue collection from colon cancer patients in Luxembourg. IBBL, in the context of its mission of serving the Luxembourg research community, decided to make this collection one of its strategic initiatives. The project started with the support of the Fondation Cancer and the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR).
Over the years, the collection has grown significantly with the launch of several research projects and the support of many partners such as the Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS), the Centre d’Investigation et d’Épidémiologie Clinique (CIEC/LIH), the Centre Hospitalier Emile Mayrisch (CHEM).
What is the current status of the collection?
Over the past years, we have established an ongoing collection of tumour tissue samples from CRC patients, assembling high quality samples of over 170 patients. This collection contains a multitude of sample types, such as serum, plasma, immune cells, stool and tumour tissue and normal counterparts from the same patients. Clinical parameters are available for all samples (age, gender, tumour location, survival, diet surveys, therapies, etc.), allowing for studies, which can generate highly valuable translational findings. Pre-analytical factors, such as the cold and warm ischemic time, the Bristol score, as well as dietary questionnaires are collected along with the samples.
We have a follow-up for these patients every year up to 5 years and clinical data is collected for more than 10 years. As the progression of CRC takes over 10 years, samples and data (survival, treatment etc.) covering 10 years are required to have a clinical relevant collection. This is why establishing such a cohort is a future-oriented project which will yield a lot of important translational findings in the domain of gastrointestinal cancers over the next years.
What is its value?
The collection allows generating results that can be translated into a clinical setting. Importantly, this cohort has a unique added value, based on (i) complete sets of sample types, (ii) full preanalytical documentation and characterisation, (iii) longitudinal follow-up samples, (iv) extended clinical data annotations, (v) quality control measurements. As we collect the tumour cells as well as the different cells of the tumour microenvironment, we can generate “small tumours” in the lab which nicely recapitulate the original tumour. These models allow us to study the mechanisms underlying tumour initiation as well as progression but also the development of novel drugs that not only target the tumour cells but also its microenvironment. This is crucial as the past years have clearly demonstrated that the tumour microenvironment plays a key role in tumour progression. Building up these complex tumour models from a patient’s material allows to develop drugs that are specific for this patient. In essence, it fosters personalised medicine.
Over the past years, we have acquired extensive knowledge in the exploitation of the results generated with the samples of the cohort. For example, by using our CRC cohort, we have identified promising biomarkers with a strong prognostic value in early CRC stages. One of our recently identified biomarkers has led to the filing of a patent on novel biomarkers for cancer diagnosis, prediction, or staging. Together with the IBBL, we obtained a Proof of Concept funding from the FNR to test one of the identified biomarkers for clinical use.
What is the future of the collection?
We have already initiated in collaboration with different groups at the University but also the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) and international partners several research projects which are using the samples from the cohort or the cultures derived from them. As an example, IBBL was invited to join a European project, partly based on the value of our collection. These tools are important to generate high translational results. In addition, we have established a biobank at the University which contains 3D spheroid cultures, organoids, as well as cells of the tumour microenvironment such as fibroblasts. This biobank can be used by researchers to perform mechanistic studies as well as drug profiling or biomarker studies.
We would like to expand this cohort and involve more hospitals as for example the Hôpitaux Robert Schuman, Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg and Centre Hospitalier du Nord. Our future aim is to include this cohort into the National Cancer Plan and further develop it as a national cohort that can be used by all researchers in Luxembourg and abroad.
The Space Resources Week 2021, organized in Luxembourg, is a 4-day online conference connecting thought leaders from the terrestrial resources sector, aerospace industry, financial institutions, research institutes and academia.
It aims at understanding the technical and economic challenges facing in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and elaborating recommendations for the future development of this high technology sector.
Within the framework of the Task Force Research Luxembourg, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) and the University of Luxembourg have decided to join their efforts to study the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in Luxembourg and in the Greater Region. This project, supported by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), began to study in spring 2020 the short-term impacts suffered by individuals and families in the beginning of the lockdown and is now looking at their long-term expectations and concerns.
Similar to the Phase 1 previous survey launched, this large online survey is aimed at all residents in Luxembourg aged 16 and over, whether they are workers, students, retirees, high school students, …because all opinions count and all information is valuable. The survey isalso accessible to cross-border workers, who have also been affected by this crisis.
The survey covers health (physical and mental), employment and working patterns, daily activities, mobility, family interactions, etc.
The responses collected will provide a better understanding of the extent of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, provide a portrait of the people hardest hit, and thus help to inform the important policy decisions that will still have to be taken in the coming weeks and months.
This study is being conducted on a voluntary and anonymous basis, and is carried out in two phases:
Luxembourg start-up LuxAI, with their socially assistive robot QTrobot, has been making waves on an international level since it was created. Discover here how QTrobot came to be and how parents can now have a QTrobot at home.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 1 in 59 children worldwide have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with autism have trouble communicating, as well as trouble understanding what other people think and feel. This makes it is hard for them to express themselves with e.g. words, gestures, facial expressions, and touch.
LuxAI is a spin-off company that has come out of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust(SnT) of the University of Luxembourg and offers an innovative approach to therapy for children with autism: QTrobot, a little, visually appealing, talking robot. The 60cm humanoid robot is designed to aid autism professionals in helping children with autism to learn new social, emotional and communication skills.
The robot tells stories, plays games and makes dialogue, through which it teaches necessary skills to children with special educational needs. For instance, using its expressive face and body movement, QT teaches children what emotions are and how to deal with them. There is also a version of the QT robot for researchers.
Photos copyright: LuxAI S.A.
Born out of interdisciplinarity
Rewind to 2011 – Pouyan Ziafati starts his AFR PhD jointly at the University of Luxembourg and University of Utrecht. The title of the PhD project was ‘Programming Cognitive Robotics’, suggesting that LuxAI CEO Dr Pouyan Ziafati, who completed his PhD in 2015, knew in which direction he wanted his research to go since day one.
Fittingly for Luxembourg, where an interdisciplinary approach to science is a matter of course, it was partly thanks to the different backgrounds of Dr Pouyan Ziafati – a computer scientist specialised in AI – and his wife Dr Aida Nazarikhorram – a medical doctor – that the idea of creating the robot QT came to be.
“Being a couple with two different backgrounds, one in AI and robotics and one in medicine, it was always interesting for us to learn more about each other’s domains. The discussions opened the door to find out that there are many areas in healthcare in which using AI and Robotics can be a game changer.”Aida says.
“At first, it was just an interesting topic of discussion, but gradually it became clear that developing an interdisciplinary venture would be very appealing for both of us. After doing early market research for a variety of health-related AI applications, we came up with the idea of a robot so easy to use that it can be used by every healthcare professional, starting from the domain of autism, which was the one most in need for an urgent solution.” Pouyan adds.
Developing with the user
In 2015, the SnT team around QTrobot successfully applied for a grant from the National Research Fund’s Proof of Concept programme (now called JUMP) and by the end of that year, the prototype of QTrobot was ready.
Pouyan and Aida explain that a rule they had set from the beginning was to ‘develop with the user’. Thus, the prototype was immediately put in use in pilot project in autism centers, as well as autism research projects in Luxembourg.
Researchers at the University who used the robot with children, such as Dr Andreia Pinto Costa, observed that children with autism look at the robot longer than they look at a person, suggesting the children are more comfortable with the interaction with the robot than with a person. The researchers explain that children with autism often suffer because they do not get specialised interventions – a missing element the robot can fill. The robot is not intended to replace therapy, but to improve and customise it.
Fewer disruptive behaviours, better concentration
Educators at a therapy centre for children with autism in France, who worked with the prototype, have seen a direct impact on the children’s learning abilities, which also indirectly leads to better relationships with their parents. The children show fewer disruptive behaviours, and are able to maintain concentration for much longer periods – they need fewer breaks and find it easier to focus.
The educators also realised they could extend the use of the robot to educate children with any disability. They easily managed to integrate QTrobot into their daily routines, such as speech, behavioural and occupational therapies – the traditional treatments they use on a daily basis can simply be adapted to QTrobot. Key is also the intuitive programming of the robots, one of the educators explains that once you know the basics, it more or less programmes itself.
LuxAI: A fast rise, much more to come
After some time working with the QTrobot prototype, researchers and educators, Pouyan Ziafati and Aida Nazarikhorram launched their company LuxAI S.A. in May 2016 – and immediately got attention: within months of launching their company, they won awards such as the first prize at Mind&Market, the best healthcare facility award. Then came more than 10 international prestigious awards, including the top 10 best ideas from Europe by EU commission, one of the Best social innovations by European investment bank and winning the award of the Tech for a better world from CES 2019. Pouyan Ziafati also won an FNR Award for Outstanding Research-Driven Innovation in 2017.
“The most important achievement is that now we are shipping our robots globally, from US to China, and every day QTrobot is working hand in hand with autism therapists and human robot interaction researchers to create a better world,” Pouyan and Aida explain.
Pouyan explains that LuxAI imagines QTrobot as the first in a row of products: “For us, QTrobot is an introduction to the market. There is great potential in using AI in healthcare that allows us to see a variety of products, both hardware and software that can be added to our portfolio.”
QTrobot now available to have at home
After several years of experience in offering QTrobot to schools and research institutes, LuxAI now aims to support parents by offering their robot to families: in April 2021, LuxAI announced QTrobot for Home enables children to receive a learning experience that, quite literally, speaks directly to them – at home.
“We are launching the parent version of QTrobot after a highly successful pilot with our beta testers. We are delighted to see we can help parents to continue their children’s education during the Covid-19 closure of schools.
LuxAI has developed a full ecosystem to assist parents in actively participating in their child’s education with QTrobot and to further conduct supporting activities to encourage the application of the skills learnt from the robot to new environments.
Following our successful work in research and education, we have gone to great lengths to minimize costs and make this advanced robot as affordable as possible.”
Pouyan has benefitted from the FNR’s funding programmes since he began his research career in Luxembourg. His PhD was funded by the FNR’s AFR programme.
“The AFR project is a great scheme, allowing innovative young researchers to develop their own research project and allowing universities to attract new researchers who are not necessarily the best fit for the existing projects, but can initiate new possibilities and new spectrum.”
Soon after the completion of his PhD, it was a grant from the FNR’s Proof of Concept (JUMP) programme that enabled the creation of the QTrobot softwre prototype. The JUMP programme helps scientists bridge the technical and funding gap between research-driven discoveries and their commercialisation, thereby enhancing the impact of Luxembourg’s research on economy and society.
“Proof of Concept [JUMP] is an incredibly valuable programme, targeting the most important barrier in transforming academic results to commercially viable solutions. It enables access to the hard to obtain financing for early stage research-driven innovations to advance them in stages suitable for funding from customers and private investors. It also provides a great support in terms of transforming as a researcher to an entrepreneur with a commercial and business mindset,” Pouyan explains, adding:
With almost 50% of its population, Luxembourg is the EU Member State with the highest share of non-national citizens. This mix of languages and cultures from all these communities is rewarding for life in Luxembourg and gives it a cosmopolitan characteristic.
A small but open society
Today, Luxembourg has a population of 626,000 people. Albeit small, it boasts an incredible diversity. In fact, almost 47% of the population doesn’t have Luxembourgish nationality which makes Luxembourg the EU Member State with the highest share of non-national citizens (in relative terms).
And this does not take into account the 185,000 cross-border employees who work in Luxembourg, commuting everyday from France, Germany and Belgium to work and contribute to the country’s economy.
Nationalities in Luxembourg
Take a stroll in any street of a Luxembourgish town or city and you will hear it: Luxembourg hosts large foreign communities, including descendants of 19th and 20th Century migrants, expats, and people who decided to stay when they visited Luxembourg. 170 nationalities have been recorded across the country.
Here is a list of Luxembourg’s 5 largest foreign communities, as a percentage of the total population:
In terms of the proportion of foreigners in the population, the city of Luxembourg has the highest number of foreigners with 70.8%.
Multilingualism in Luxembourg’s DNA
Growing up with a host of languages is normal for every child living in Luxembourg. Students learn German, French and English at school as mandatory languages and have the choice of learning other languages as well. Moreover, children encounter many other languages as part of their daily lives, through friends with different backgrounds and taking part in society in general.
Luxembourgish, French, German, English and Portuguese are among the most popular languages, but Italian, Spanish, Polish, Swedish, Finnish, Romanian and many other languages enrich the country’s society every day.
This showcases Luxembourg as a country whose society is open to many different cultures and nationalities and incorporates this multiculturalism like few other societies do.
83% of residents speak three or more languages
(Eurobarometer, “European and their languages” 2012)
Multilingualism is also a prominent feature of Luxembourg’ s economy, and has enabled the country to grow over the decades, from an agricultural society in the 1800s, to an internationally renowned financial and research and development hub in the 21st century.
Companies from all over the world have established their global or European headquarters in Luxembourg, enriching Luxembourg’s already multicultural society with Indian, English, American and many other expat communities.
This multilingual environment might be a challenge at first, but many employers encourage employees to learn new languages, an investment which presents an opportunity in the long term.
Originally launched in April 2020 under the aegis of the Research Luxembourg COVID-19 Taskforce, the CON-VINCE study aims to evaluate the prevalence and dynamics of the spread of COVID-19 within the Luxembourgish population, with a specific focus on asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic individuals. The last round of testing of the CON-VINCE participants is due to start in April 2021, approximately one year after the first set of visits upon inclusion in the study. The final wave will provide a comprehensive insight into the evolution and transmission of the disease over an extended timeframe, particularly from an immunity perspective.
Under the leadership of Prof Rejko Krüger, Director of Transversal Translational Medicine (TTM) at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), CON-VINCE aims to detect asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic (oligosymptomatic) carriers by testing a panel of over 1,800 individuals, representative of the Luxembourgish population, for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and monitoring them over 12 months through a series of follow-up visits.
The annual follow-up testing phase under the project will begin on April 19th and is set to run over 5 to 6 weeks. As with the previous rounds of testing, all participants will be subjected once to a nasopharyngeal swab. Blood and stool samples will also be collected once as part of these follow-up visits, with the support of the laboratories Ketterthill, Laboratoires Réunis, BioneXt Lab, as well as of LIH and Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS) as associated partners for biospecimen collection. Biological sampling will be complemented by collecting additional information on confinement measures and vaccination through short follow-up questionnaires.
“From an operational perspective, participants will be asked to fill out the questionnaire provided through our partner TNS-Ilres. Upon completion, they will receive a voucher for sample collection at one of our partner laboratories. Collected samples will then be sent to the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL) for further analysis and storage”, explains Prof Rejko Krüger, coordinator of CON-VINCE.
Specifically, the collected nasopharyngeal swabs will undergo PCR testing to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while blood samples will be analysed for antibodies (serological testing) to assess whether the participants have mounted an immune response following exposure to the virus or after vaccination.
“We are expecting to obtain crucial information from this annual follow-up, particularly as pertains to the persistence of the antibody response over a full year. Moreover, this last visit will also allow us to analyse cell-based immunity, thereby giving us a more complete picture of the global immune response against the novel SARS-CoV-2”, adds Prof Krüger.
“For this reason, we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to our partners, and specifically to the diagnostic laboratories and TNS-Ilres, for their unfaltering support and seamless collaboration throughout the past year, as well as to all volunteers who agreed to participate in the study. I take this opportunity to stress again the importance of their renewed participation, particularly in the context of this final wave, without which we would not be able to generate meaningful data and research outcomes for patients and the population in general”, he concludes.
CON-VINCE was launched in April 2020 as one of the several initiatives put in place under the aegis of the Research Luxembourg COVID-19 Taskforce to help contain the current pandemic. By screening a statistically representative panel of volunteers for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, CON-VINCE will identify asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic individuals and follow them up for a year. Ultimately, the study aims to generate accurate data on the prevalence and transmission of the disease within the Luxembourgish population.