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From lab to startup: LuxAI and QTrobot – a robot to help children with autism

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.

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.

Dr Pouyan Ziafati and Dr Aida Nazarikhorram (copyright: LuxAI S.A.)

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:

Sources: Luxembourg National Research Fund

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Industrial & Service Transformation Inside Research Luxembourg Latest news Personalised Healthcare

Stimulating collaborative R&D projects through public-private partnerships in Luxembourg

To facilitate the emergence of projects and support the process of preparing joint projects, a new dedicated digital platform has been set up. It is being tested with this first pilot joint call in the field of health technologies.

A new dedicated digital platform, www.research-collaboration.lu, has been set up by Luxinnovation, and the three stakeholders have signed a Memorandum of Understanding in order to formalise their collaboration. The objective of the call for projects is to stimulate collaborative R&D projects through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

This is the first time in Luxembourg that such a joint call for projects is launched within the research, development and innovation ecosystem. Common objectives have been defined by the National Research Fund (FNR) and the Ministry of the Economy to meet the sector’s development needs, while Luxinnovation plays a facilitating role by providing a digital platform to encourage networking.

A coordinated process

The objective is to facilitate the emergence of collaborative research projects aimed at demonstrating the performance and safety of digital health tools. The development of such new products and services for the benefit of patients requires the combined skills of public research, hospitals and companies. Collaborative projects will be evaluated in a coordinated process. Funding decisions will also be taken jointly by the partners.

“The development of digital tools in health technologies is of crucial importance for the Luxembourg economy. It is part of the implementation of our strategy for data-driven innovation that contributes to the evolution of personalised medicine in Luxembourg.

Franz Fayot, Minister of the Economy

“We want to bring together public research institutions, companies and health sector actors around research and innovation projects designed to accelerate the digital transformation in the health sector” 

Marc Schiltz, Secretary General of the FNR

Maximum transparency

To facilitate the emergence of projects and support the process of preparing joint projects, Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency, has initiated the setting up of the www.research-collaboration.lu platform. Companies, public research organisations, hospitals and healthcare providers are invited to submit project ideas. Luxinnovation’s role will be to follow up on the ideas, in particular by bringing together public and private partners interested in participating.

The call for projects is planned in two stages, with feedback provided to the consortia at the end of the first stage. Only projects relevant to the objectives of the call will be invited to prepare a full application. Finally, the approved consortia can use the platform for preparing the technical documentation required to submit individual applications to the Ministry of the Economy and the FNR.

“Thanks to this platform, we will help researchers and clinicians gain better knowledge of all the innovations in digital health developed by private companies. It will also provide them with new financial opportunities for getting involved in personalised medicine with a real economic impact for the country.

Sasha Baillie, CEO of Luxinnovation

The platform is being tested with this first pilot joint call in the field of health technologies. It is already open for the “ideation” stage (the creative process of generating, developing and communicating new ideas). It will then open up for the proposal submission period, which will last from 4 May to 30 June. For projects whose ideation component has been validated by the Ministry of the Economy and the FNR, a more complete proposal must be submitted by 15 October, which will then be examined by a panel of external experts. The results will be communicated in January 2022 and projects can start in February 2022.

A webinar presenting the functionalities of the platform will be organised by Luxinnovation on 4 May.

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Industrial & Service Transformation Latest news

COMPOSELECTOR – A high potential Research Luxembourg innovation

For the second year in a row, an innovation made in Luxembourg has received a prestigious recognition from the Innovation Radar, a European Commission’s initiative to identify high potential innovations and innovators in EU-funded research.

Enabling strategic use and integration of materials

To resolve social challenges and enable digital and green transition, while reducing costs and potential risks, manufacturing organisations need to improve their decision-making regarding the materials selected and design.

In 2017, the LIST’s Materials Research and Technology department teamed up with strategic partners in Europe to develop COMPOSELECTOR – a Business Decision Support System (BDSS) for the selection and design of polymer-based composites (PMCs), integrating materials modelling and simulation workflows.  

Over the last few years, our materials researchers have developed no less than 11 major innovations, turning COMPOSELECTOR into a unique system which contributes to:  

  • Increase the fraction of critical decisions thanks to materials’ modelling and simulation;
  • Better select materials without needing lots of timeconsuming experiments;
  • Accelerate the development, adoption and use of new materials, which currently take longer than designing and prototyping;  
  • Substantially improve the product’s design and manufacturing;
  • Analyse the influence of random and uncertain variables on manufacturing;
  • Study different simulated materials and systems in identical environments (or the other way around);
  • Integrate and connect to external thirdparty applications, then enabling a balance among performances, manufacturing as well as economic and life cycle aspects;
  • Reduce time to market by shortening the design and preproduction phases;;
  • Improve communication between customers, designers and decisionmakers through an online dedicated solution.

A Tech Ready to improve decision-making

We enjoy the benefits of materials in almost every aspect of our daily lives – in our smartphones, computers, modes of transport, processes for energy conversion and distribution, medicine, etc. It is therefore essential for designers, manufacturers and business decision-makers to quickly screen and evaluate multiple design and processing scenarios, to support material innovation in a systemic way and so boost their competitiveness. As a matter of fact, the information collected during the conceptual phase of a product’s development improves decision-making during the whole life of the product. This increases potential of innovation with new material, manufacturing processes and structural concepts illustrating further our willingness in accelerating the translation of our materials research excellence towards purposely developed innovations.

In other words, COMPOSELECTOR improves the selection of materials and design, reduce costs and contribute to the digitalisation of manufacturing industries, giving them the possibility to constantly adapt their business to volatile environments, guaranteeing sustainable benefits.   

More information on the project:

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Industrial & Service Transformation Latest news Personalised Healthcare

Launch of Cross-Europe nano-pharmaceutical project “PHOENIX” coordinated in Luxembourg

11 project partners from academia and industry located all across Europe have joined forces in a project called PHOENIX to create an “Open Innovation Test Bed” for nano-pharmaceuticals and it will all be coordinated in the Grand Duchy by Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST).

PHOENIX is an innovation project funded by EU’s Horizon2020 Framework Programme and it aims to provide services for the development, characterisation, testing, safety assessment, scale-up, GMP production and commercialisation of nano-pharmaceuticals to the market, making them available to SMEs, start-ups, research laboratories and interested users.

The project is coordinated by Dr Tommaso Serchi at LIST and supported at MyBiotech near Saarbrücken for the Scientific Coordination by Dr Nazende Günday-Türeli. PHOENIX will have a duration of 48 months starting on 1 March 2021 with a total budget of €14.450 million and a requested EU contribution of €11.1 million.

What are nano-pharmaceuticals?

They are drugs that use nanotechnology (the use of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale for industrial purposes) in some form. This could be in the sense that the drugs themselves are nanomaterials. For example, contrast agents are used in the form of nanoparticles rather than a molecule because nanoparticles are more stable and can stay longer in blood. Another example could be that the nanoparticle is used as a capsule to encapsulate the drug and protect it while enhancing adsorption and distribution.

Nano-pharmaceuticals have the potential to drive the scientific and technological uplift, offering great clinical and socioeconomic benefits to society in general, industry, key stakeholders and patients. Nevertheless, affordable and advanced testing, manufacturing facilities and services for novel nano-pharmaceuticals are main prerequisites for successful implementation of these advances to further enhance the growth and innovation capacity.

The implementation of an Open Innovation Test Bed

The establishment of current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) in nano-pharmaceutical production on a large scale is the key step to successfully transferring nano-pharmaceuticals from bench to bedside (from lab to industrial scale). Due to the lack of resources to implement GMP manufacturing at site, the upscaling and production of innovative nano-pharmaceuticals is still challenging to main players of EU nanomedicine market, start-ups and SMEs. To allow successful implementation of the nano-pharmaceuticals in the nanomedicine field, there is an urgent need to establish a science and regulatory-based Open Innovation Test Bed (OITB).

The PHOENIX project aims to enable the seamless, timely and cost-friendly transfer of nano-pharmaceuticals from lab bench to clinical trials by providing the necessary advanced, affordable and easily accessible PHOENIX -OITB which will offer a consolidated network of facilities, technologies, services and expertise for all the technology transfer aspects from characterisation, testing, verification up to scale up, GMP compliant manufacturing and regulatory guidance.

PHOENIX-OITB will develop and establish new facilities and upgrade existing ones to make them available to SMEs, starts-up and research laboratories for scale-up, GMP production and testing of nano-pharmaceuticals. The services and expertise provided by the OITB will include production and characterisation under GMP conditions, safety evaluation, regulatory compliance and commercialisation boost.

The 11 partners that form the PHOENIX consortium

  • Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) – Research and Technology Organisation (RTO) from Luxembourg – Project coordinator.
  • MyBiotech – Small Medium Enterprise (SME) from Germany – Project Scientific Coordinator.
  • Nanomol Technologies SL, SME from Spain.
  • LeanBio SL, SME from Spain.
  • BioNanoNet Forschungsgesellschaft mbH (BNN) – RTO from Austria.
  • Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC – two distinct institutes take part in the action CSIC-INMA and CSIC-ICMAB) – RTO from Spain.
  • Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health (IMROH) – RTO from Croatia.
  • Research Center Pharmaceutical Engineering GmbH (RCPE) – RTO from Austria.
  • Cenya Imaging B.V. – SME from The Netherlands
  • Topas Therapeutics GmbH – Industry from Germany
  • Grace Bio SL – SME from Spain

More information on the project on LIST’s website

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Industrial & Service Transformation Latest news Sustainable & Responsible Development

Accelerating the transition to a sustainable energy landscape in Luxembourg

Encevo, the leading national energy player, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) will team up to develop a long-term innovation program and identify resources to execute joint projects.

For Encevo Group, innovation plays a key role in driving forward the transition towards a sustainable energy landscape in Luxembourg and the Greater Region. By strengthening the ties between the leading national energy player and the Luxembourg research community, the three parties aim to launch the development of a long-term innovation program and identify resources to execute joint projects in the context of the energy transition and Encevo’s group strategy. Encevo can thereby profit from scientific resources at both institutes while researchers can profit from Encevos’ experience and practical knowledge of the energy landscape. The collaboration will target notably smarter and more intelligent energy grids, electricity and flexibility markets, renewable energies as well as data-driven business models in the energy sector.

The partners intend also to rely intensely on Luxinnovation – a trusted partner for companies launching innovative activities – to help facilitate planned cooperation.

From left to right: Thomas Kallstenius, CEO of LIST – Claude Seywert, CEO of Encevo S.A. – Prof. Björn Ottersten, Director of SnT.

“In a rapidly changing energy landscape, innovation plays an increasingly important role. We want to intensify our efforts in this area”, says Claude Seywert, CEO of Encevo S.A. He underlined his great satisfaction to now join forces with LIST and SnT.

“Climate change requires new energy management. Today, a lot of investment in Luxembourg and worldwide is focused on clean-energy technologies, such as solar arrays, wind turbines and electric cars. At LIST, we are working on such solutions that are ‘sustainable by design’, to reduce negative environmental impact as far as possible through the intelligent design of products, services and technologies. We have highly specialized researchers working on sustainable energy systems, and sustainable urban and built environments. Together with Encevo and SnT, we will be able to accelerate our innovation capacities in these domains for the country’s benefit”, says Thomas Kallstenius, CEO of LIST.

“The transition to sustainable energy is one of the strategic priorities for the University and we are pleased to be extending our long-lasting work with the entities of the Encevo Group. This latest collaboration builds on our success working with Creos, the grid operator within Encevo Group, on the smart grid, which has played a key part of the digitalisation of the energy sector in Luxembourg. We have a proven track record of mastering digital transformation through collaborative research projects with companies, and look forward to driving this cooperation with Encevo and LIST,” says Prof. Björn Ottersten, Director of SnT.

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Industrial & Service Transformation Latest news

A new Research Luxembourg technology on the market

The technology HASARD enables the generation of flood maps on a global scale from satellite data. The tool has proved its efficiency on several occasions, notably during cyclone-related floods in Mozambique in March 2019 or in Myanmar in South-East Asia in May 2019.

Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) took advantage of the last days of the year to sign the agreement sealing the creation of a new spin-off of the institute. Named WASDI, the spin-off was officially created on Wednesday 23 December.

It markets a technology developed at LIST and patented: HASARD®, which notably enables the generation of flood maps on a global scale from satellite data. The tool has proved its efficiency on several occasions, notably during cyclone-related floods in Mozambique in March 2019 or in Myanmar in South-East Asia in May 2019.

While the maps generated with the HASARD tool have attracted the attention of the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), they have also been used by different organisations such as NASA’s Earth Science Disaster Programme, the United Nations World Food Programme and different members of the Global Flood Partnership.

HASARD has therefore proved its worth and is preparing for the heyday of the WASDI spin-off. It consists of a consortium composed of the Italian company FadeOut, RSS Hydro and LIST. Paolo Campanella of FadeOut becomes its Chief Executive Officer.

Among its first partners, the spin-off will be able to count on the World Food Programme and the World Bank. ESA and LSA have also already shown great interest in the potential offered by the creation of the spin-off.

HASARD was developed within LIST by Patrick Matgen, Ramona Pelich, Marco Chini and Renaud Hostache within the Remote Sensing and Natural Resources Modelling group of the Environmental Research and Innovation Department. Based on this technology, WASDI, in collaboration with its partners, will develop and make available a wider range of applications, notably for forest fire mapping, ship movements monitoring and urban change mapping.

The WASDI Team ©LIST
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Industrial & Service Transformation Latest news

Ultra-lightweight structures made in Luxembourg

The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and the established Luxembourg company Gradel are joining forces by opening a joint Luxembourg Lab to research and produce ultra-lightweight structures for the aeronautics and space industry.  Parts will be produced for three European giants in satellite construction; Thales Alenia Space (France), Airbus Defence and Space (France), and OHB (Germany). This project holds great promises for the space sector and beyond, with potential applications in the automotive and aeronautic world. 

In the domain of space and satellites, weight is expensive. The heavier a product for transport into space is, the more it costs. In fact, the current estimate is costs of around €5,000-10,000 per kilogram, meaning that any weight loss is beneficial financially for companies sending satellites into space.

The LIST/Gradel joint effort aims to produce very tough, yet ultra-lightweight structures using continuous carbon-fibre-reinforced-polymers (CFRP) in a filament winding process creating ultralight 3D structures. The carbon fibre is coated with a polymer that solidifies the entire object rendering it extremely solid and resilient. Impregnated carbon fibres are wound to form an optimised 3D-mesh design that gives the part its special mechanical properties.

The joint lab, hosted in LIST’s new premises in Hautcharage, will focus on two projects, known as “xFKin3D” (the name of the technology) and “Robotised xFKin3D”.
While the first one consists of making parts by hand with the filament weaving manually and will target the demonstration space-use standards of structural parts produced by the xFKin3D technology, the second one aims at producing the same parts, but with the use of a new robotic arm recently installed at LIST. This will make it a fully automated manufacturing process, assuring excellent repeatability, to the same strength and quality, but on a larger, industrial scale.

Researchers from the joint lab ©LIST
The end products are for aerospace, but what exactly? 

The components produced are destined for use in all that is antenna support, bracket for equipment in satellites. Currently many of these parts are metallic and therefore relatively heavy. The aim is to move away from metal parts, and with this new technology by LIST and Gradel produced in Luxembourg, a reduction of up to 75% in weight can be achieved, saving companies considerable costs.

It has already been confirmed that the final clients for parts produced at LIST premises, will be initially for Airbus, Thales and OHB – three major European players in the space industry.

When it comes to commercialising parts produced in the LIST labs, it is Gradel who will take on this task with an already proven track record in producing products for the space industry.

LIST will contribute its expertise in the formation of the materials and play a major role at the start and of the process and development, researching and determining such things as the correct conditions, speed, printing, pressure, temperature etc, needed to obtain parts of strong and good quality.

“Setting up joint laboratory and development program to support innovative Luxembourg company is at the very heart of our LIST mission ” said Dr Damien Lenoble, director of the Materials Research and Technology – MRT Department of LIST adding that “advanced research towards ultra-light-weighting with sustainable materials and processes is one our CORE research area in MRT, acknowledging that targeting leading-edge requirements of the space industry together with GRADEL will pave the way for timely energy-efficient terrestrial applications that go from wind turbines to ultra-light transport vehicles”.

Regarding the new collaboration with LIST, Gradel’s Managing Director, Claude Maack stated, “Gradel began working with Ultra Lightweight structures in the space sector in 2018 by signing an exclusivity contract with AMC GmbH which developed xFK in 3D first in the Automotive sector. Now with LIST we have a strong partner with deep knowledge in material and process of composite structures allowing us further qualification for Space applications. Supported by LSA, this innovative process technology will enable Gradel to continue its success story in Space sector and beyond with a full automated manufacturing process”.

A disruptive technology with potential applications in the space field, and beyond 

Light-weighting is a popular topic in today’s world, and becoming more and more important in many areas of production, notably in the automotive and aeronautic world. The heavier a car is, the more it consumes. If you manage to halve the weight of a vehicle, you halve the energy necessary to move it. This technology is currently being applied to space technologies, in the future it could equally be as beneficial for aircraft and automobile industries.

Both projects are supported by the Luxembourg National Space Programme LuxIMPULSE, which aims at providing funding to help companies established in Luxembourg to bring innovative ideas to market. The programme is managed by the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) together with the European Space Agency (ESA).