In the heart of Europe an innovative – and already consolidated – experiment was launched almost a decade ago at iMinds, a research organization, now focusing on digital research, but also offering to companies and organizations active support in research and business development.
As they claim on their website: “We drive digital innovation for society and economy, through strategic and applied research on key digital technologies.”
And indeed it is their mission to bring together the expertise of almost 1000 researches – in strategic and applied research – with entrepreneurship. iMinds helps people and organizations in converting innovative ideas into successful businesses, with a special focus on the areas of ICT, Media and Health, but not only.
In order to better understand the values, the mission and in particular the activities of iMinds, we met Wim Van Daele, the Communications and Media Relations Manager at iMinds, for an inspiring and interesting chat.
Silvia Bertolotti: What is the current role of business partnerships in the field of research? You mostly work, at iMinds, with IT/telecom companies, is there a specific reason for choosing these industries?
iMinds: Collaboration with the industry is at the core of iMinds. We have even developed our own cooperative research instrument – ICON – in which iMinds researchers work together with industry partners in broader consortia to solve a specific market need.
To date, iMinds has set up approximately 150 cooperative digital research projects under the ICON banner, representing more than 330 million euro in investments by iMinds and the industry. What is equally interesting, is to see what has been the impact of this. According to a recent survey:
– Nearly 95% of the surveyed companies indicate that iMinds’ instruments enable them to conduct research on a larger scale, broaden their networks and develop new products;
– More than 70% claim to be able to improve existing products, plan follow-up investments and increase revenues;
– In a quarter of the cases, companies highlighted the potential to create a spin-off based on the research results.
And even more importantly perhaps, a related ICON impact study from 2014 showed that every euro of public money invested in ICON leads to 5 euro of private follow-up investments (in terms of actual investments and job creation).
Examples of ICON projects that have made a difference in recent years include: TRACK (which enabled Flemish technology company Televic to win an important contract with Eurostar); Telesurgery (the results of which were integrated into Barco’s Nexxis product for digital operating rooms, and which has already been implemented in more than 100 ORs in the Benelux); and ASCIT (which laid the basis for Bednet, a platform that has been enabling online education for long-term sick children for ten years).
Another way of iMinds collaborating with the industry includes iMinds’ Living Labs offering, through which iMinds offers companies a customized mix of research methods and tools to engage end users in all stages of the innovation process. The living labs methodology comprises a combination of co-creation sessions, stakeholder interviews, prototype testing, real-life testing and validation workshops.
After all, actively engaging potential users while developing an innovative product or service, paves the way for a successful market launch. In a living lab, end users become actively involved in the innovation process acting as co-designers and testers. This user-centric approach does not only enable product developers to capture, understand and validate users’ interactions with products and services at an early stage, it also allows end users to gain better understanding of a new product or service.
iMinds provides companies of all sizes with the (living lab) tools and techniques they need to actively engage end users in the innovation process. We help companies transform their ideas into actual prototypes and viable products that strongly meet the end user’s needs and expectations through a quasi-experimental trajectory:
– Pre-tests in which the current state-of-the-art in the innovation domain is assessed; this also functions as a baseline measurement to assess the added value of the innovation in the post-test stage.
– Intervention stage encompassing all field trial research steps.
– Post-test stage in which the added value of the innovation is being assessed.
In terms of companies that we are working with, we are going much broader than just the telco industry. It is true that ICT – in its broadest sense – is the common denominator, but we really see ICT as an enabling technology that encompasses innovation in industry sectors as diverse as Media, Health, Manufacturing (Industry 4.0) and Smart Cities; sectors that face significant societal and economic challenges.
We opted for those specific market sectors, because we believe that they are particularly relevant to Flanders’ socio-economic growth, with our researchers having the expert knowledge and competences to play a vital role in their further development.
Silvia Bertolotti: Why iMinds? What is the main current need – and challenge – in the field of digital innovation?
iMinds: iMinds is instrumental in positioning Flanders as one of Europe’s leading digital regions. Every day, companies (big and small), governments and social-proﬁt organizations leverage the expertise of our academic research teams to tackle societal and economic challenges. Our goal: inject digital innovation in (new) companies, or translate these innovations into products and services that improve and enrich the lives of people, young and old.
Silvia Bertolotti: How and in which terms do you specifically support start up projects? What are the key markets?
iMinds: iMinds supports researchers, young entrepreneurs and start-ups in the successful market introduction of their (digital) ideas – in key markets including ICT, Media, Health, Smart Cities & Manufacturing.
iMinds’ iStart business incubation program is one of the main tools we have at our disposal to meet that objective – providing tech start-ups with pre-seed funding, expert coaching and counseling, workshops, access to iMinds’ network and co-working spaces, etc. Since the start of the program in 2011, already more than 100 start-up projects have been supported (in spite of the very stringent selection criteria which make that only 1 out of 5 requests get accepted).
So far, these projects have resulted in more than 400 full-time jobs and total revenues of more than 20 million euro (in 2015). Most start-ups have secured paying customers, are on a clear growth path and have attracted follow-up financing. In 2015, iMinds’ iStart program was named the world’s number four in UBI Global’s ranking of ‘Top University Business Accelerators’ – following a screening of more than 500 university business incubators from all over the world.
Another key to the iMinds success in the entrepreneurship space is its unique ‘Flipped Knowledge Transfer’ methodology which iMinds has built into its daily operations. It really turns the traditional academic research model upside down – with research being directly inspired by the business and technology challenges of (starting) entrepreneurs.
A good example is the cooperation between iMinds and Ontoforce – a Flemish start-up boosting pharmaceutical research through its semantic web technology. What started in 2011 as an Ontoforce feasibility study, resulted in the sophistication of Ontoforce’s semantic web technology by researchers from iMinds – Ghent University, a licensing agreement and a bilateral research project that is still ongoing today.
To quote the iMinds CEO, Danny Goderis: “Start-ups are extremely important for achieving economic growth, but they often lack the research capacity that is needed to really make a difference. iMinds’ Flipped Knowledge Transfer methodology makes it easier for them to work with university researchers. It is a collaboration that is driven by the entrepreneurs. As such, we give them the (extra) research capacity they require to translate their ideas into innovative products that enable them to conquer the market.”
Silvia Bertolotti: With regard to research projects, what are the privileged sectors? Could you mention some of the most interesting projects recently developed?
iMinds: iMinds collaborates intensively with fellow research institutes, companies, governments and social profit organizations to translate its knowhow in the software realm in concrete products and services. We do so by conducting both strategic and applied research on technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), digital privacy and security, and deriving knowledge from (big) data streams. As mentioned above, we thereby focus on five market segments: ICT, Media, Health, Smart Cities & Manufacturing.
Examples of breakthrough research include:
– In the IoT domain: Belgian professor receives prestigious European grant to develop disruptive wireless ‘ATTO cells’ that will be instrumental in creating intelligent swarms of robots. Belgian professor Piet Demeester (iMinds – Ghent University) has been awarded a prestigious European ERC Advanced Grant to pursue the development of his disruptive ATTO cell technology. Over the next five years, he will receive 2.5 million euro to develop a fully functional ATTO proof-of-concept.
The ATTO research pursues a low-latency, high-speed wireless network that supports dedicated connections of 100Gbps to each entity in dense groups of moving objects (such as robots); giving them instantaneous access to remote computing resources that make them more intelligent and interactive.
– From a privacy and security perspective: making wearables more secure through biometric encryption. In a recent article in “Nature”, Bart Preneel (iMinds – COSIC – KU Leuven) sheds his light on the privacy issues that come with the use of (low-cost) health apps and wearables. As an internationally acclaimed expert on cryptography and information security, he considers using internal signals from the body – such as DNA or heartbeat patterns – as a promising approach to keep personal health data safe from unauthorized decryption.
– Deriving knowledge from (big) data streams: eXtasy can detect malignant mutations in a patient’s genome 20 times more accurately. At least 5 percent of the world’s population suffers from a rare, hereditary disease. Until recently, the origins of those genetic disorders could be correctly identified in only half of all cases. For the remaining patients and their families, the lack of a conclusive diagnosis usually marks the beginning of a long string of expensive, strenuous and sometimes even unnecessary treatments in search of answers.
New and especially cheaper technologies to decipher the human genome held the promise of a quicker and more accurate diagnosis of hereditary disease. Unfortunately, they fell short of this promise: the huge amount and complexity of the data that must be processed to find a malignant genetic mutation among the millions of harmless ones make the search much like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.
The eXtasy project changes this outlook. The software suite uses advanced artificial intelligence to combine whole sets of complex data into a global score that reflects how important a given mutation is for a certain disease. “This data can consist of networks of interacting proteins, but could also include scientific publications or even scores that estimate how harmful a mutation is for the protein in question,” explains Professor Yves Moreau of iMinds–STADIUS–KU Leuven. “In this way, we can detect disease-causing mutations twenty times more accurately.”
Silvia Bertolotti: What is the typical profile of one of the almost 850 researchers you work with?
iMinds: We are actually close to 1,000 researchers (more than 50 nationalities), spread across 5 Flemish universities. This gives us the critical mass that is required to really advance innovation in the digital domain. What everyone at iMinds has in common, is a shared passion for digital technology and innovation. Every day we commit to stimulating creativity, new ideas and knowledge sharing. With our research and entrepreneurship programs, we open up our digital research and technology expertise to companies, organizations, knowledge centers and the government, and forge fresh collaborations leading to tangible results.
But iMinds is also a multi-disciplinary research institute, bringing together the technical and non-technical skills that are needed to advance digital innovation in all its dimensions. We thereby call upon the expertise of our researchers (ranging from network engineers and mathematicians to experts in privacy, ethics and communication sciences). In other words: there is no such thing as a typical iMinds researcher; everybody is bringing their expertise to the table.
Silvia Bertolotti: What are the key digital technologies you invest in and what is, in your opinion, the main technology challenge for the future? (Big data, IoT, cyber security…)
iMinds: While each of those technology domains and key markets present important challenges that need to be solved, what they all have in common is the key role that digital innovation plays in solving those challenges…some examples:
– Data Science: Just as the Industrial Revolution transformed society by shrinking distances and exploding productivity, today’s massive data growth will bring a whole new wave of social and economic change. It will make cities smarter, societies healthier and companies more efficient and effective. The automation of knowledge work alone — intellectual tasks currently performed by people — could have an economic impact of more than $5 trillion, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
The success of what the World Economic Forum and others are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution hinges largely on advances in data science, the discipline of turning unstructured, multimedia information into usable knowledge. Uniquely fusing semantic intelligence and artificial intelligence into a single focus, iMinds’ research teams across the various Flemish universities aim to solve five crucial data science research challenges — ranging from how to squeeze meaning out of raw data to how to teach search tools to think for themselves. At the same time, we’re working with industry to develop practical solutions that will help companies reap advantage from their data.
– Digital Health(Care): With more people living longer than ever before and chronic disease on the rise, traditional health(care) systems are being pushed to their limits. In other words: scarce medical resources (such as specialized personnel, budgets, etc.) have trouble keeping up with rapidly-increasing patient demands.
It is generally acknowledged that the concept of digital health can help us address that issue – with digital technologies empowering each and every one of us to better track and manage our health. As such, digital health can personalize and optimize treatments while reducing medical inefficiencies and costs. Recent ICT developments and digital trends have already generated a steady increase in efficiency and process optimization across different sectors. Digital health holds the same potential, with technology empowering us all.
Clearly, the health industry has already jumped on that bandwagon – with analysts predicting that the value of the global digital health market is expected to almost quadruple in the next few years (from USD 60.8 billion in 2013 to USD 233.3 billion by 2020). But before we can realize the full potential of digital health in all its facets – personal, societal and economic – a number of barriers need to be overcome; an effort to which iMinds is largely contributing.
– Internet of Things: In the past decade, the Internet has grown exponentially. It has been at the basis of numerous innovative applications already – and the best is yet to come… In a next step, the Internet will evolve to a true ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) in which nearly all objects that surround us (cars, household robots, containers, etc.) will be connected. Just think of a refrigerator with an Internet connection that can send an e-mail if a product has expired.
Such an Internet of Things will have enormous potential – but in order to fully unlock its economic and societal value, a number of challenges still need to be tackled. iMinds plays a leading role in studying and solving some of those issues. Calling upon the expertise of its 900+ researchers (ranging from network engineers and mathematicians to experts in privacy, ethics and communication sciences) – and collaborating with the rapidly-growing (Flemish) IoT industry – iMinds has the critical mass to realize IoT breakthroughs that matter on an international level.
Silvia Bertolotti: iMinds was born as a Flemish/Belgian reality. What is the role of international cooperation? Are there specific projects for the future?
iMinds: As we said in the beginning, collaboration is in iMinds’ DNA – both on a local level (with Flemish companies and entrepreneurs) – but also on a European level (in European research projects, for instance). A concrete example of the latter includes the ERC (European Research Council) Grants that have recently been allocated to iMinds researchers, such as:
The INTERFERE project of professor Peter Schelkens (iMinds – VUB) which aims at designing a generic source coding methodology and architecture to facilitate the exploitation of sparse signal representations for dynamic, full parallax, large viewing angle digital holography and more generic, interference-based modalities, with the ambition to reduce the signal processing tailbacks while exploiting simultaneously human visual system characteristics.
The BIOTENSORS project of professor Sabine Van Huffel (iMinds – KU Leuven) will aim to develop a general functional framework for solving tensor based blind source separation (BSS) problems in biomedical data fusion, using tensor decompositions (TDs) as basic core. The power of developing these new techniques will assist in various biomedical applications such as seizure detection, brain tissue typing, and cognitive brain functioning.
The ATTO researchof professor Piet Demeester (iMinds – Ugent) pursues a low-latency, high-speed wireless network that supports dedicated connections of 100Gbps to each entity in dense groups of moving objects (such as robots), giving them instantaneous access to remote computing resources that make them more intelligent and interactive.
International collaboration has also been the driver behind the announced merger with imec (one of the other Flemish strategic research centers) – creating a world-class, high-tech research institute driving the digital economy: on February 19th, the nanoelectronics research center imec and digital research and incubation center iMinds announced that their respective boards of directors have approved the intention to merge the research centers. As they join forces, a world-class, high-tech research center for the digital economy will be created.
The new research center will combine the technology and systems expertise of more than 2,500 imec researchers worldwide with the sophisticated digital competencies of some 1,000 iMinds researchers. This high-tech research center will further strengthen Flanders’ authority as technology epicenter and region focused on creating a sustainable digital future, whilst targeting maximum regional impact.
Silvia Bertolotti: In your opinion, what is the added value of digital research on a social level?
iMinds: iMinds’ digital research & innovation effort is driven by the desire to create a positive impact on society. Once again, this crosses the various technologies and market segments that we have opted to invest in.
Digital Health is one nice example in this regard, more specifically the trend towards Citizen Health Empowerment: as more people are living longer than before and with chronic disease on the rise, disease prevention alone is no longer enough. Citizens need to take more control over their health – by giving them greater access to their personal health information and equipping them with tools and insights to better manage their lifestyles.
Another example is the creation of smart cities (cf. iMinds’ smart city activities in the Belgian City of Antwerp). In the past decade, the Internet has grown exponentially. And the best is yet to come: gradually, the Internet is evolving into a true Internet of Things in which nearly all objects that surround us (cars, household appliances, light bulbs, etc.) will be connected. As such, the foundation is laid for the creation of ‘smart cities’ in which tens of thousands of sensors and connected devices will optimize the way in which we live and work.
That is what is happening in the City of Antwerp. Hundreds of smart sensors and wireless gateways positioned at carefully selected locations across streets and buildings will transform the city into a true living lab for the Internet of Things (IoT). The long-term objective is to connect thousands of Antwerp citizens with numerous innovative solutions that will considerably improve their quality of life – by positively impacting mobility and public safety in the city, among other things.
In other words: the City of Things is not only about deploying new technologies. Also here, iMinds’ Living Lab activities play a crucial role: within the context of the City of Things project, iMinds aims to bring together users, developers, entrepreneurs, government agencies and research institutes. Their common goal: to develop innovative products, services and business models that make the city a more enjoyable place to live and work.
To quote professor Pieter Ballon (iMinds – VUB): “A smart city is not a ready-made product. It results from concrete pilot projects in which city officials, companies, start-ups and citizens closely collaborate in order to tackle urgent mobility, security and livability issues. As such, cities become permanent living labs with an open infrastructure and open data by means of which innovative services and apps can be created and tested.”
Examples of such apps and services include:
– apps that monitor personal health parameters or air quality,
– improved mapping and monitoring of social interactions and citizen initiatives,
– mobility apps for monitoring traffic flows and detecting car park occupancy levels, or for flexibly adjusting travel routes in line with real-time traffic issues,
– customized multimedia applications, interactive displays throughout the city.
Silvia Bertolotti: “We translate digital know-how into real-life products and services”. Can you mention some examples of products and services you created?
iMinds: Examples of projects that have made a difference in recent years include: TRACK (which enabled Flemish technology company Televic to win an important contract with Eurostar); Telesurgery (the results of which were integrated into Barco’s Nexxis product for digital operating rooms, and which has already been implemented in more than 100 ORs in the Benelux); or ASCIT (which laid the basis for Bednet, a platform that has been enabling online education for long-term sick children for ten years).