ERC Advanced grants: wide success in Spain for SOMMa members

Severo Ochoa - María de Maeztu alliance (SOMMa)
  • 185 ERC Advanced Grants were awarded on 31 March, for a total investment of 450 Million Euro
  • 14 grants went to Spain, of which eleven were to researchers with affiliation to SOMMa members
  • Each of these grants is funded with up to 2.5 Million Euro for a five-year period


The 2019 ERC Advanced Grant Call:

In the year 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) started awarding grants that aim to support internationally recognised researchers performing top-tier, cutting-edge research in any field of research. Eligible researchers must be working in an EU member state or one of the associated countries. Projects with a strong multidisciplinary component favouring the rise of innovative applications in emerging fields are encouraged, being evaluated by selected international peer reviewers on basis of their excellence and soundness.

On Tuesday 31th March, the ERC published the list of grantees for the new ERC Advanced research projects that are to be funded during the next five years. The ERC Advanced Grant is awarded to projects led by well-established researchers with an outstanding track-record of relevant groundbreaking research in the past ten years. The projects have to develop innovative, original, high-risk research lines that contribute to solve key scientific challenges and to open new fields of research. The funding to successful proposals can reach up to 2.5 million euros for a five-year period.

ERC projects are awarded to institutions and researchers of EU countries, plus a number of associated countries.

During the period for submission of projects for the 2019 ERC Advanced Grant call, close to 1.900 proposals were submitted, among which a total of 185 grants were awarded, yielding an overall success rate of 9.8 %. Of the successful proposals, a total of 14 went to Spain, four of which were in the Life Sciences, seven in Physical Sciences and Engineering, and three in the Social Sciences. Of these, up to twelve* were awarded to researchers with affiliation to a SOMMa member institution.


The SOMMa awardees:

The ERC Advanced projects of researchers from SOMMa member institutes span disciplines from economic policy and theory, artificial intelligence, new approaches to information technology, nanotechnology, computational physics and chemistry, to biosciences, and cancer. The projects, which can have a strong basic research component, have the aspiration to have a significant impact and a lasting imprint. This will translate in the facilitation of future applications or the consolidation of pioneering fields of research.

Starting an overview of the projects with those in the field of economics, with affiliation to the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, we find Jan Eeckhout, who will study about market power: the ability of a company or economic actor to influence the price of a good, service or item in the market by means of the modification of supply or demand. The project by Eeckhout will put an emphasis on the study of the effects of market power on wage inequality. Another focus point is on the technological factors that can be behind an increase in the market power of a particular company. All taken together, what are the implications for efficiency and wellbeing?

Also in the field of economics, another of the awards went to Jordi Galí, a researcher affiliated to the Center for Research in International Economics, and to the Barcelona GSE as well. Galí will direct his efforts and attention towards the interplay and effects of heterogeneity, monetary policy and economic fluctuations. Heterogeneity, the trait describing the differences found across a particular parameter being considered (such as differences in productivity or human capital of companies) is a factor with impact in manifold economic aspects. Stemming from the proposal by Galí, models will be developed contributing to revise central aspects of macroeconomic policy, salary flexibility, or the stabilizing role of fiscal policy and income control.

Two of the awarded projects were in the field of economics, a better understanding of which can aid in policymaking.

In another field of research, the project RLeap, “From Data-based to model-based AI: Representation Learning for Planning”, will be the deployed at DTIC-UPF by researcher Hector Geffner. Radically new methods in artificial intelligence, and ideas based on various overlapping areas of knowledge will have to be developed -and leveraged-. The ability to learn particular symbolic representations (“1st order symbolic representations”) starting just from data (non-symbolic representations) and using them to express, communicate, recognize and attain objectives is a main component of human intelligence. This is also a key theme in AI research, which in this project translates into a work to attain the integration of “learner” and “solver” elements in the context of planning.

Based at ICN2, Clivia Sotomayor will be furthering the study of phonons and their properties. A phonon is a quantum (i.e. a discrete, indivisible amount) of energy, and more specifically, a quantum of vibrational energy. Phonons and their transmission will be researched in her project, codenamed LEIT. The studies will be conducted by means of particular structures that allow to take advantage of phonon properties, looking for new ways for lossless information transmission in semiconductor nanostructures, silicon membranes and phononic crystals. Success in this endeavour will lay the foundations for a phononics-based approach to information processing, which would yield significant advantages in terms of lowered device energy-consumption, size and enhanced reliability.

“Imaging, DEcoherence, and AttoSecond probing of ionization - induced charge migration in molecules” is the proposal by Fernando Martín of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (also affiliated to SOMMa members IFIMAC-UAM and IMDEA Nano). The proposed work will aim to understand and predict the initial stages of the process of charge migration in complex molecules in the extremely short timeframe of the attoseconds (10-18 seconds). Computational tools to obtain detailed descriptions of ionization and charge migration in complex molecules will be developed. This enterprise will make significant contributions to consolidate the field of “attosecond science”, a discipline addressing practical problems in the fields of physics and chemistry, while providing basic knowledge of electronic processes inside matter.

Several of the awarded projects have relevance in the development of technologies that may one day reach the palm of our hands.

Switching to the field of nanotechnology, we find the project e-DOTS, by Maurizio Prato. He and his team at CIC biomaGUNE will direct their efforts towards engineering carbon nanodots, a type of luminescent carbon nanoparticles. Exploring the structure and properties of these particles will allow their tailored synthesis, and a better control of the resulting properties. The nanoparticles, of between 3 to 4 millionths of a millimetre, are made of organic molecules subjected to temperatures of 200-300 °C. Their bioluminiscence and solubility in water and other solvents make them particularly well suited for biomedical imaging and therapeutic applications.

Xavier Trepat, of the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia, was granted the funding for “Engineering epithelial shape and mechanics: from synthetic morphogenesis to biohybrid devices” (EpiFold). The surfaces of the human body are covered by thin cellular layers called epithelia, playing essential roles in morphogenesis, filtration and transport, and in the protection against pathogens. Trepat will, via engineering of tissues in vitro, shed light on how three-dimensional strutures are generated in the organism, and on the mechanical properties and principles behind 3D epithelia. His team will focus on clarifying how epithelial tissue adopts and keeps its particular shape, also advancing in the generation of hybrid devices with the capability to enhance biorobot functionalities.

In the field of oncology, two pending key questions that remain to be answered will be addressed by two projects at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas: Why can tumours divide indefinitely? How become cancer cells capable of disseminating across the body? (ultimately leading them to invade new organs). Maria Blasco, director at CNIO and vice-president of SOMMa, will perform via one of these projects the first systematic study of Shelterins, a particular type of protein that is found to be mutated in a variety of kinds of cancer. One of the aims is to be able to thwart the mechanism that allows the infinite division and multiplication of cancer cells. Success in this endeavour will help block one of the main deletereous characteristics of cancer cells.

In addition to the previous project, researcher Marisol Soengas, also of the CNIO, will address a different key aspect related to the aggressiveness of cancer. Her project “Imaging, characterizing and targeting metastatic niches in melanoma” will focus on the ability of cancer cells to generate metastasis, which is a leading cause of cancer mortality. In order to find ways to make treatments more effective, her team will employ animal models and sophisticated techniques that will shed light on how metastases are originated. The results of the study will be validated in samples provided by actual cancer patients.

Two of the deletereous traits of cancer cells are their infinite capacity to divide, and their ability to generate metastasis.

Switching yet to another SOMMa member, a third cancer-related project is that of Eduard Batlle, of the Institute of Research in Biomedicine of Barcelona. Batlle will study cancer relapse in colorectal cancer, an event that happens in up to 40 % of these cancer patients after successful treatment. The recurrence often occurs as a result of metastases taking place, by which cancer cells travel to vital organs. Efforts will concentrate on the stage in which cells of the primary tumour spread before surgical intervention, later originating those metastases and relapses. By means of tumour organoids Batlle will study the migration of cancer cells, their evasion of the immune system, invasion of organs and the seeding of new tumours.

Finally, Ben Lehner, of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, was awarded an ERC grant for his project to determine understand mutations and how they interact with each other to influence protein structure, organism evolution, epigenetic inheritance and disease. The group of Lehner will use deep mutagenesis, a method capable to generate large datasets of mutated proteins, enabling to assess the effect of a numerous range of mutations. The project will provide rich insights into how mutations combine to alter phenotypes, which is of central importance to evolution. Techniques enabling laboratories worldwide to use deep mutagenesis to solve protein structures will be developed.

The alliance wishes all these researchers, their teams, host institutions and collaborators even further success in their endeavours, and in the development of their projects.



Image credits:

Europe satellite picture is in the public domain and was downloaded from Wikipedia.

Economy evolution picture is in the public domain and was modified and downloaded from Pixabay.

Information technologies picture was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and licensed via an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Cancer cells illustration is in the public domain and was downloaded from Flickr.


* Note: For the sake of readability, in-text reference to the institution of origin cites in most cases only the SOMMa institution, except in the cases in which the application to the ERC grant was formalized via a different institution (i.e. a different "host" institution). In those cases the name of the host institution is mentioned, and the benefitting researchers are mentioned if they are members of a SOMMa institution. Further details about researcher affiliations can be recovered in the links used as source information.

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