ZEISS and EPFL: A Blueprint for Collaborative Innovation

© 2023 EPFL

© 2023 EPFL

A research collaboration between industry and academia that dares to take risks and foster scientific creativity.

EPFL is one of the world leaders in research, so the quality is there, but it’s also about the atmosphere and willingness to try new things, to dare to be wrong and sometimes be astoundingly right in our scientific intuitions. It’s been very successful.

ZEISS Fellow Dr. Michael Kempe

Recent history has seen the merging of industry insight with academic exploration as a way to spur innovative breakthroughs in technology. In the United States, collaborations between MIT and Analog Devices, Inc., as well as Stanford University and Hewlett-Packard are clear examples of academia and industry synergy. Taking cue from such successful partnerships, EPFL has been nurturing its tradition of industry collaboration, fostering significant alliances with companies such as Swisscom, Nestlé, and Logitech. In a similar spirit of collaborative innovation, EPFL’s School of Engineering has been collaborating extensively with ZEISS, a world leader in optical technology.

Initiated from a meeting between EPFL president Patrick Aebischer and former ZEISS CEO Michael Kaschke in 2014, the formal collaboration began in 2016. Since its inception, the partnership has overseen seventeen joint projects encompassing areas such as semiconductor technology, medical diagnosis, life cell imaging, and smart manufacturing, aiming to keep Europe at the forefront of these strategic fields. Managed by EPFL Professor Yves Bellouard and ZEISS Fellow Dr. Michael Kempe, the collaboration showcases a successful partnership model that is facilitating groundbreaking work in optical technology. In an exclusive interaction, we delve deeper into the collaborative model with insights from Kempe, Bellouard, and ZEISS researcher Dr. Klaus Gwosch.

Professor Bellouard, what is the defining trait of EPFL’s collaboration with ZEISS?

Yves Bellouard: We are all researchers who understand that research can take interesting and sometimes even unpredictable directions. In research, you can’t plan everything, and sometimes the initial ideas work out, sometimes they don’t… Working with ZEISS gives us unique opportunities to be confronted with challenging and stimulating research problems relevant for industry and at the forefront of innovation, that in turn also help us to identify longer term and fundamental problems to tackle.

Dr. Kempe, how does ZEISS foster this scientific creativity?

Michael Kempe: Leading by innovation is in our DNA. Perhaps it’s best to take the specific example of our collaboration with Professor Bellouard’s lab Galatea. We’re working together to continually improve our optical technology for semiconductor manufacturing. The state-of-the-art is to use photolithography at very short wavelengths, so we’re talking about components that are made with extreme precision using light. And optics plays a huge role in this. In order to maintain our competitive edge, we need to be involved and nurture the underlying research that drives our technology.

Dr. Gwosch, as you’ve worked on this joint project with Professor Bellouard as a researcher, could you tell us more about the project?

Klaus Gwosch: The semiconductor field is very competitive, and the machines that make over 80% of today’s semiconductor use ZEISS optics. So as Michael said, we need to maintain our competitive edge to keep this market share. The collaboration with the EPFL team has been very tight. We’ve had monthly meetings and worked out solutions to the problems together.

Yves Bellouard: It’s true. We never felt as though we were just given the financing and left on our own to find the solutions. The dialogue was constant, which shows how the ZEISS researchers are also putting in time to understand our research and contribute their ideas to the project.

Dr. Kempe, do you think that this collaborative model could apply to other industries?

Michael Kempe: Well, it took us a while to figure out the best way to initiate fruitful collaborations. The scientific committee, comprised of both EPFL and ZEISS researchers, have found effective ways to identify small projects within the EPFL research community with the potential to grow into larger ones. Around 50% of these original seed projects have flourished into continued research collaborations. I’m sure that if a company has similar goals, this model will work well for them, as it has for us.

So how is the collaboration organized on an institutional level, Professor Bellouard?

Yves Bellouard: The yearly workshop is really at the heart of the joint collaboration’s organization. We issue a call for projects, and researchers from both ZEISS and EPFL meet and assess these projects, and the ones that meet the requirements are funded seed money by the ZEISS Research IDEAS program. We choose three to four projects each year, and when one or several of them are successful—both on a collaborative, human level and are scientifically promising—ZEISS or other funding sources continue to support with financial input and their expertise to develop a larger project. We are talking about some of the most interesting and challenging scientific problems coming from industry. It’s a great opportunity for our younger researchers to get experience working on these projects.

Michael Kempe: Yes, it’s important to underscore the human side of things. As Yves and Klaus have already alluded to, the collaboration doesn’t just happen on paper. We’re talking about individuals interacting on an ongoing basis, so there also has to be a spark there. EPFL is one of the world leaders in research, so the quality is there, but it’s also about the atmosphere and willingness to try new things, to dare to be wrong and sometimes be astoundingly right in our scientific intuitions. It’s been very successful. I want to point out that this collaborative atmosphere is fostered in great part by EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation (VPI). There’s a real institutional willingness to collaborate.

It's evident that the collaboration between ZEISS and EPFL is a profound manifestation of what happens when academia and industry come together. The VPI workshops, like the ZEISS / EPFL model, stand as a testament to this, offering a curated platform where EPFL researchers and industry innovators like ZEISS can explore shared interests, ultimately seeding potential collaborations. These sessions have been commended by various sectors for their ability to provide a streamlined pathway to impactful alliances, harnessing the vast knowledge and talent reservoir at EPFL.

In a broader scope, the role of VPI is pivotal in bridging the gap between the academic and corporate worlds. Not only does it connect industries with EPFL's academic experts, but it also offers the service to professors who are eager to see their research make a tangible difference in the market. The VPI recognizes the richness in bringing these two worlds together and is devoted to facilitating these synergistic exchanges. Their team, equipped with dual expertise from both academic and industrial backgrounds, strategically matches industry demands with academic prowess, ensuring that the spirit of innovation remains at the forefront of these collaborations.

The 6th ZEISS Research IDEAS call is open to EPFL researchers until November 15th. This current funding call focuses on various technology areas including 3D imaging, automated systems, and VR—targeting applications in fields like medical diagnosis, life cell imaging, and manufacturing. If you have questions about this call or are otherwise interested in an Industry/Academia collaboration, do not hesitate to contact the VPI Team directly via email at [email protected].

The ZEISS / EPFL collaboration was highlighted during the 2023 Industry Day at EPFL, organized by the VPI and EPFL’s School of Engineering. The 2024 edition will take place on March 14th in Lausanne. Should you wish to attend it, please contact us at: [email protected]