EU research conducted – despite difficult conditions
Over the last few years, the ZHAW has successfully submitted and won seven Horizon 2020 proposals. The aim is to continually increase this number over the coming years, despite the unstable political climate.
Soft smart materials can provide support for those with mobility impairment. Engineers, physiotherapists and those working in the area of human movement science at the ZHAW are working together with eight European partners in an interdisciplinary project entitled “XoSoft”. The aim of this project is to find a new innovative solution within the EU research programme “Horizon 2020”. The soft exoskeleton provides the appropriate level of support to aid the movement sequence being carried out. Nowadays, for example, those who have mobility impairment - either following a stroke or accident, or from birth - are dependent on rigid walking aids. These aids are often heavy and they do not provide support in some situations, such as when the patient is walking downhill. The new solution will be as thin as leggings or socks and will be able to be worn under clothing.
A specific example of the use of XoSoft is with so-called foot drop, says Christoph Bauer, Deputy Head of the Research on Group Movement Laboratory at the Institute of Physiotherapy of the School of Health Professions. Patients with foot drop can experience, for example, paralysis in the front part of their foot muscles, which causes the forefoot to drop and drag along the ground when walking.
“With XoSoft, the sensors could recognise when the swing phase starts and signal to the actuator when it should activate either stabilisation or movement, pulling up the foot. When the foot hits the ground again, the exoskeleton becomes soft and stabilises the body through the foot – something that conventional, rigid health aids, also called orthoses, cannot currently achieve.”
The innovative textile is to be equipped with sensors that help integrated software learn the movements of the affected limbs. This software can then provide support, bring relief or allow freedom to move at the right moment.
“The sequence of movements is recorded through algorithms which analyse the data collected by the sensors employed,” explains Konrad Stadler. This is where his research area – Control Engineering at the ZHAW School of Engineering – comes into play. He says that a model of real sequences of movement when walking serves as the foundation, and that it is customisable for each individual patient. This is the idea so far.
XoSoft, which stands for soft exoskeleton, is supported by the EU, as well as by the Swiss Confederation, within the context of the interim solution for Horizon 2020. The total budget for the project, which will be running for three years, amounts to € 5.4 million. The development started on 1 February, 2016 and the first prototype is planned to be built this year.
During the development, the prototype and the software are tested on a regular basis in the mobile movement laboratory at the ZHAW Institute of Physiotherapy. This is where Post-doctoral Research Associate Eveline Graf employs precise measurement methods to check that algorithms portray the sequence movements as desired and that they control the walking aid correspondingly.
“We can examine human posture and measure the parameters of human gait precisely and recognize immediately whether XoSoft prototypes support walking as desired, or if the material or software needs to be adapted,” she says. XoSoft is one of the latest of seven promising projects in which the ZHAW is involved in the European Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020.
In the current political climate, it cannot be taken for granted that Swiss universities such as the ZHAW may conduct research with European partners successfully. This is something that Agnes Zoller is also aware of. As Scientific Officer, the chemist coordinates and supports the Horizon 2020 activities of the ZHAW’s Institute of Chemistry and Biotechnology (ICBT) in Wädenswil.
At the moment, it is a challenge for Swiss partners to be able to participate in a consortium, says Zoller. Many European researchers, for example, do not know that Switzerland guarantees the funding of projects with an interim solution. ”Not only did I have to persuade many partners that the ZHAW has excellent interdisciplinary competences, but I also had to inform them about the situation in Switzerland and had to do a lot of convincing,” says the scientist.
The impact of these uncertainties is also mentioned in the most recent report of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). According to this, Switzerland’s participation rate in the EU Research Framework Programmes is declining for the first time. This also applies to projects in which Swiss researchers occupy a central role in the coordination of these consortia. Swiss scientists have become more cautious. Konrad Stadler and his XoSoft team, for example, decided not to manage the project, even though many partners in the consortium had wished to see the ZHAW in this role.
“We did not want to take the risk of having to hand over the coordination of the project due to political arguments or, in the worst case, of not even receiving approval for the project,” says Stadler. In contrast to the political uncertainties, the research objectives of the European Framework Programmes, particularly for Universities of Applied Sciences, are demonstrating a positive development. According to Suzana Atanasoski, contact person for EU research (Euresearch) at the ZHAW, the successor programme of Horizon 2020 will be even more practice-oriented. In this programme, more financial resources are already being invested in applied research than in pure research.
This is one of the reasons why the ZHAW has defined European research as a cornerstone of their current strategy. Because a major advantage of the EU programmes, besides the international networking, is that they include the entire range, from pure research to the final product. In Switzerland, no comparable comprehensive programmes exist. Both, the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), only cover parts of the whole spectrum. This is also a reason why Horizon 2020 is attractive to ZHAW researchers and why the number of applications for European research grants is increasing, despite the difficult political framework. In 2014, the ZHAW handed in 24 submissions, of which two were successful. In 2015, the ZHAW had already submitted 41 projects and five have received funding so far.
The ZHAW’s new European research strategy aims to further increase the number of project submissions. This corresponds to the “European” strategic objective. For the future, it will be important to increase the succes.
Interim Agreement – Horizon 2020
By the end of 2016, the interim agreement, which provides partial association with the Horizon 2020 programme for Switzerland, will be discontinued. What will happen after this is still unclear. The protocol regarding the extension of the Free Movement of Persons Agreement to Croatia - which the Swiss Federal Council recently signed – is not yet a guarantee that Switzerland can fully participate in the Horizon 2020 EU Research Programme or later in the successor programmes. Initially, both Swiss parliamentary chambers still have to ratify the agreement, and a referendum is also possible. In addition, all of the 28 EU countries have to agree on letting Switzerland participate fully again. Therefore, the Swiss administration is also preparing for a scenario where there is no agreement regarding Horizon 2020, so that Switzerland has to continue to provide its own funding for the research projects.
SERI study: Facts and figures on Swiss participation in European Framework Programmes for Research.
Switzerland ranks among the top countries in the EU Framework Programmes for Research with regard to success rate and funds received. Suzana Atanasoski wants to help to ensure that this remains the case. At Euresearch Contact Point ZFH, she is the main contact person for all members of the Zürcher Fachhochschule (ZFH) on questions relating to EU funding schemes.
Suzana Atanasoski has to “scout” and is responsible for identifying researchers working on topics that are suitable for Horizon 2020 programmes and who have the potential, networks and motivation for successful participation. Once the researchers are identified, she shows them the programme that would fit best. In addition, know-how about the programmes is disseminated at information events where she and other experts share their experiences. When a project becomes clearly defined, Suzana Atanasoski also supports the scientists as they prepare their proposals, formulate their projects and draw up a budget. After the acceptance of the Swiss referendum aimed at stopping mass immigration in 2014, her job became more important than ever. “There was great uncertainty at that time,” she says.
Between 2007 and 2013, more than 500 Swiss companies participated in projects of the EU’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7), of which almost 60 % were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In this programme alone, SMEs were funded to the tune of 321.3 million Swiss francs. The majority of the calls for collaborative projects in the subsequent Horizon 2020 programme expressly recommend SMEs to participate. By participating, companies gain know-how and ensure access to new technologies. In addition, they can build up business partnerships or enter new markets.
Florian Berner is the SME Euresearch Contact Point at the ZHAW, who is specifically concerned with all questions of SMEs relating to EU Framework Programmes. He helps companies to find out which funding programmes and projects suit their needs, and which fit in with their innovation strategy. Or he assists them in finding the right partner. He also provides support in administrative issues, for example, when a project proposal needs to be formulated in such a way that it conforms with the guidelines and can hold its own in the competitive tendering procedures.
Author: Abraham Gillis