Ghent University: Two Ghent University researchers win an ERC Proof of Concept Grant

Ghent University researchers Wim Bogaerts (right) en Bart Kuyken (left) win an Proof of Concept Grant, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). This grant will help them to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation. Both professors are affiliated with the Photonics Research Group in a tight collaboration between Ghent University and IMEC.

In the LIQUORICE project, Wim Bogaerts wants to realize a new type programmable photonic processor. Photonic chips manipulate light on a microscopic scale. Today they are already widely used in fiber-optic communication as well as some sensors, but every new function requires a new custom-designed chip, which is very expensive. If you can make a photonic chip that can be programmed using electronics and software to perform many different functions, it becomes much easier to experiment with new optical functions. LIQUORICE builds on the work in the ERC consolidator grant PhotonicSWARM, and combines silicon photonic chips with liquid crystal technologies used for displays. Every pixel on the microdisplay works as a controller for a small part of the photonic chip, which allows us to accurately program the flow of light on the chip. The chip we develop in LIQUORICE will be capable of performing different optical functions for applications in metrology, communication and sensing.

Data at very high speed
In COMb, Bart Kuyken and team will leverage the technology that has been developed in the ERC Starting Grant ELECTRIC and apply it to making ultra-fast optical transceivers.

Already, most of the high-speed data links are optical: light is used as the carrier of information. As such “photonic chips” are needed to transmit and receive the data on these links. In contrast to electronic chips where electrons carry the information, photonic chips manipulate photons i.e. light. Such chips can potentially be fabricated at very large volumes in the same fabs that are currently used for the traditional electronic chips.

The new type of photonic chip that will be developed in the COMb project will use a special technique to add a new material, lithium niobate, on the chip. The electro-optical properties of the material allow for making ultra-fast modulators. Modulators are the components that can turn the light on and off and thus encode the data onto a light beam. The new chips will exploit the strong and fast electro-optic property of Lithium Niobate to turn on and off the data at speeds beyond 100 GHz. As such extremely high datarates far beyond what is currently possible with competing technologies can be addressed. Such chips will be capable of sustaining the massive amounts of data our future internet will need. Speeds that are increasing at a staggering rate due to the onset of virtual reality, augmented reality and high resolution streaming,…

€25 million to edge frontier research closer to market
166 researchers funded by the ERC have won Proof of Concept Grants. Worth €150,000 each, this top-up funding will help them bridge the gap between the results of their pioneering research and the early phases of its commercialisation. The grants are part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. ERC grantees use this Proof of Concept funding in several ways, for example to verify the practical viability of scientific concepts, explore business opportunities, or prepare patent applications.

“It’s wonderful to see that frontier research has the capacity to generate discoveries that can be quickly put into practice. Let’s not forget that there is no applied research without basic research feeding the pipeline first – and that very valuable innovations spring from all disciplines, from the physical and life sciences to the social sciences and humanities”, said Maria Leptin, President of the ERC
Across the board, in 2021, 348 Proof of Concept proposals were evaluated, with an overall success rate of 48%. This compares to a total success rate of 32% in the previous year when applicants submitted more proposals. The same amount of funding was available both years. Among the winners, there were 48 female grantees. The proportion of women among both applicants and grantees increased from last year. There were 5 grants awarded to researchers working in Belgium.

A recent survey of ERC funded researchers shows that Proof of Concept grantees have a distinct tendency towards academic entrepreneurship – half of them engage in knowledge-transfer activities or other business ventures. However, this tendency is not confined to Proof of Concept grantees; over 11% of respondents to the survey declared that they had either created companies or transferred the results of their research to pre-existing companies.

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