National Center of Competence in Research Bio-Inspired Materials

On December 17, 2013, the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) announced that it would support a new National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) for Bio-Inspired Materials at the University of Fribourg. Since then, this leading interdisciplinary center based at the Adolphe Merkle Institute has been striving to become an internationally recognized hub for paradigm-shifting research, innovation, and education in the domain of “smart” materials whose function and design are inspired by nature.

Transcending traditional disciplines, the center integrates the research activities of 21 research groups from AMI, the University of Fribourg’s departments of chemistrymedicine, biology, and physics, and partners at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL).

The overarching scientific goals of the NCCR are:

  • to take inspiration from natural materials to establish design rules and strategies for the creation of macromolecular and nanomaterial-based building blocks and their assembly into complex, hierarchically ordered stimuli-responsive materials with new and desirable properties;
  • develop a predictive understanding for the interactions of such materials with living cells;
  • and use the generated knowledge to develop innovative applications, particularly in the biomedical field.

Research is organized in four modules that focus on:

  • mechanically responsive materials across different length scales;
  • biologically inspired assembly of optical materials;
  • responsive bio-interfaces and surfaces;
  • and the dynamics of interacting cell-materials systems.

Each of these modules tackles major unsolved problems, provides opportunities for great scientific advances on its own, and requires an interdisciplinary research approach. In the long term, the interconnection of these themes through cross-cutting projects and the common goal of being technologically relevant will create substantial synergies, which can only be harnessed if addressed within a multidisciplinary Center. AMI director Prof. Christoph Weder was the director of the NCCR until the end of May 2020. AMI deputy director Prof. Ullrich Steiner has taken over those duties since June 1, 2020. 

Education

The NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials, uniting researchers from chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, and materials science, offers interdisciplinary education and training opportunities to students of all educational levels. The goals of the Center include:

  • To spark the interest of elementary and high-school students in science and scientific careers and to contribute to their education;
  • To create research opportunities at all educational levels (high school, undergraduate, PhD, postdoctoral) and expose a large number of students to the Center’s activities;
  • To develop and offer new interdisciplinary education and training at the Masters, doctoral and postdoctoral levels in the domain of “soft materials”;
  • To support the career development of PhD students and post-docs;
  • To promote the careers of pre-tenured researchers.

By offering unique education and research opportunities, fostering the advancement of young scientists in natural and life sciences, and providing attractive boundary conditions, the Center aims to become a desirable destination for young students and researchers. Key programs offered by the NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials include: Undergraduate Summer Research Internships, Graduate Student Exchanges, and an Independence Grant for young researchers.

Equal opportunities

The NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials offers equal opportunities to all participants, fosters the advancement of young scientists, and promotes the integration of women at all educational levels in natural and life science disciplines. The Center makes efforts to support and promote the career development of talented young scientists and women through a range of activities. The main goals of the Center are to:

  • Promote and protect everyone’s right to equal opportunities;
  • Promote the interest of female students in natural sciences already at the undergraduate level;
  • Create a culture and boundary conditions at the workplace to ensure equal career opportunities for parents;
  • Disseminate successful measures and promote their implementation, in other units of the universities that form part of the Center and beyond;
  • Encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career and actively help them to overcome existing hurdles;
  • Support the career development of (female) PhD students and postdocs and promote the careers of pre-tenured academic researchers;
  • Actively support the employment of women at all levels within the NCCR up to the professorial level.

Innovation & Technology Transfer 

National Centers of Competence in Research (NCCR) promote long-term research projects in areas of strategic importance for the development of science in Switzerland, for the economy of the country, and for Swiss society. A specific goal of the NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials is to seek applications of the research undertaken, where one route to leverage the research into the market is in collaboration with industry.  For this, it is constantly seeking company partners interested in the Center's research to set up trial projects, research agreements and other forms of collaboration. To date, applications include adhesives, sensors, anti-counterfeiting and labeling, novel production methods, advanced toxicology, targeted therapeutics, and many others. Another goal is to develop biomedical applications for disease detection and therapy, as well as regenerative medicine.  Some examples of application-targeted research can be found on the NCCR's  Startups page. With this combination of scientific focus and scope that are unparalleled in Switzerland, together with the clear interest to develop applications, the NCCR is uniquely positioned to become an internationally recognized hub for soft materials research, education, and innovation.

AMI participants