The KU Leaven in Belgium is Europe's most innovative university. Image: REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
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Despite political unease across the continent, the top ranks of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities remain remarkably steady. For the fourth consecutive year, KU Leuven tops Reuters Europe’s Most Innovative Universities Ranking, a list that identifies the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power industry.
At 594 years old, the Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium’s Flanders region certainly isn’t new but it’s hardly staid either, boasting a tradition of influential innovation. Patents filed by KU scientists are frequently cited by other researchers in their own patent filings. That’s a key criterion in Reuters’ rankings, which was compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics.
Germany’s University of Erlangen Nuremberg (No. 2) climbs three spots to the runner-up position, bumping Imperial College London (No. 3), the University of Cambridge (No. 4), and Switzerland’s EPFL (No. 5) each down one rung on the ladder. The UK’s University College London (No. 6, up five) is one of two new entrants to the top 10, along with the University of Zurich (No. 9, up four). The Technical University of Munich (No. 7, down one), University of Manchester (No. 8, down one) and ETH Zurich (No. 10, no change) complete the top 10.
Only one university in the top 100 is entirely new to the list: The Norwegian University of Science & Technology, or NTSU (No. 56).
German universities account for more entrants than any other country, with 23 institutions in the top 100, the same as last year; the United Kingdom has 21 schools, also no change; France is third with 18 universities, followed by the Netherlands with nine, Belgium with seven, Spain and Switzerland each with five, Italy with four, Denmark with three, Norway with two, and Austria, Ireland and Poland with one.
Amid the uncertainty caused by a still-pending Brexit, British institutions show a general performance decline among the top 100, while German and Dutch universities are rising, on average. Despite Reuters’ ranking including some historical data that predates the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, these trends could reflect the first wave of researchers leaving the UK in favor of more stable institutions on the continent.
To compile the ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, Clarivate Analytics identified more than 600 global organizations that published the most articles in academic journals, then reduced that list to only include institutions that filed at least 50 patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization between 2012 and 2017. Then they evaluated each candidate on 10 different metrics.
Of course, the relative ranking of any university does not provide a complete picture of whether its researchers are innovating. Since the ranking measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook notable programs: a university might rank low for overall innovation but still operate one of the world’s top high-energy physics labs, for instance. And even the universities at the bottom of the list are still the very best on the continent: All 100 of these institutions produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.
Take a look at the Top 10 below.
www.kuleuven.be - 56,351 students -1,107 staff
Belgium’s KU Leuven takes first place on Reuters’ list of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities for the fourth consecutive year. The university consistently produced a high volume of patents and papers that influenced researchers across Europe and around the world.
Recent research highlights at the university include the March 2019 announcement by bioscience engineers based at KU Leuven’s Center for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis that they have invented a new generation of solar panels that can efficiently produce hydrogen gas out of thin air. A proprietary system extracts water vapor from the atmosphere and splits it into constituent elements, converting 15 percent of the solar energy it receives into hydrogen, or an average of 250 liters per day. Researchers say that’s a new record for efficiency, and that an array of 20 of the 1.6 square meter panels could meet the energy needs of an average Belgian family for an entire year.
KU Leuven Research & Development (LRD), established in 1972, was one of the first tech transfer offices in Europe, and has helped the university spin off more than 124 companies across a range of industries.
Founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, KU Leuven is the world oldest Catholic university. Part of KU’s modern mission is to conduct comprehensive and advanced scientific research. A Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium’s Flanders region, it is open to students of all faiths, operates autonomously from the Church and maintains one of the largest independent research and development organizations on the planet. KU Leuven ranked seventh on Thomson Reuters’ 2018 list of the World’s Most Innovative Universities, the highest ranking of any university outside the United States.
www.fau.de - 38,771 students - 579 staff
In February 2019, researchers at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) revealed they have developed a novel process for cleaning up crude oil spills using magnets. A team based in the department of materials science and engineering modified iron oxide nanoparticles so that they attach to hydrocarbons; when sprayed on a spill, they instantly attach to the oil, which can then be easily and safely removed from water with a magnet. The process is more efficient and environmentally friendly than other cleanup methods, and the FAU team is working with partners in private industry to manufacture the materials for use in real-world cleanups.
Other FAU researchers recently discovered that neurofeedback therapy can deliver long-term benefits for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, providing positive effects that last for at least 6 months after treatment. The children use a computer program linked to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor their brain activity in real time and practice how to regulate and improve their behavior.
Founded in 1743, the University of Erlangen Nuremberg is a public research institution based in the Bavarian cities of Erlangen and Nuremberg. It is also known as Friedrich-Alexander University, after two 18th-century patrons of the institution. Notable scholars, including physicist Hans Geiger, co-inventor of the Geiger counter, and electrochemical engineering pioneer Georg Simon Ohm, have studied or taught at the university.
www.imperial.ac.uk - 15,317 - students - 1,347 staff
Researchers at Imperial College are developing new tough, lightweight, 3D printed materials that are made out of metal but have the robust lattice structure of natural crystals. The new material, called meta-crystal, is strong and able to take considerable abuse without cracking or failing. The substance could be used in a variety of applications where cracks or shearing could have catastrophic results, including jet engines, medical devices, and residential buildings.
Elsewhere at the university, researchers working with the British Heart Foundation have used stem cells to grow heart tissue in a lab, simulate a heart attack, and then prevent damage to the cells using protein-blocking chemicals. The discovery could lead to new drugs that minimize cardiac damage after an attack and increase survival rates from coronary heart disease.
Imperial College London is a public research university serving more than 17,000 students from more than 125 countries. Founded in 1907 as part of the University of London, Imperial became fully independent in July 2007 and now focuses on the four main disciplines of science, engineering, medicine and business. Throughout its history, Imperial College researchers have been responsible for groundbreaking innovations including the discovery of penicillin and the development of holography and fiber optics.
www.cam.ac.uk - 18,977 - students - 1,646 staff
In February 2019, Cambridge University announced that it had received a record £100 million grant from British financier David Harding, the biggest single gift ever made to a UK university by a philanthropist. The funds will be used to bring students and researchers from around the globe to Cambridge, including £79 million earmarked to provide full scholarships for top PhD students.
Elsewhere at the university, researchers have developed a new type of plant-powered fuel cell that is five times more efficient than existing models, and a major step forward in the search for alternative, greener fuels. In the fiscal year ending 2017, the University of Cambridge reported total research grant income in excess of £465 million. Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialization group, distributed £6.3 million in investment funds to researchers in the 2018 financial year, and its income from knowledge and technology transfer exceeded £14.1 million.
Established in 1209, the University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, just behind the University of Oxford. Cambridge was founded by scholars who left Oxford to create their own institution. Throughout its history, 96 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with the university, more than any other institution. Notable alumni include Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer scientist who is considered the father of modern computing. In 2015 Cambridge launched the Alan Turing Institute, with the help of four other universities and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The institute develops advanced mathematics and computer science algorithms.
www.epfl.ch - 9,750 students - 874 staff
Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed an advanced composite material that can easily heal itself after being damaged – and which could help businesses save billions in repair costs. The substance is a fiberglass-reinforced resin that has a repair agent incorporated into the composite material; when it cracks, repair crews can simply heat up the material, which activates the repair agent, causing it to flow into the crack and repair the damage without any change to the material’s original properties. Researchers says it could be particularly useful in the construction of wind turbines, which have an estimated annual total global maintenance cost in excess of $13 billion.
Other EPFL researchers are working with multinational automobile manufacturer Nissan to develop technology that will allow smart cars to read brain signals and facilitate the driving process. As part of the joint project, the team managed to read brain signals that indicated when a driver was about to accelerate, brake or change lanes – information that a vehicle could use to anticipate the movements and make ensuing maneuvers easier. EPFL researchers established 245 startups between 2000 and 2017 (more than one per month, on average), and filed 140 invention disclosures and 95 priority patents in 2017.
Located in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva and at the foot of the Alps, EPFL is one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. The university houses more than 350 laboratories and research groups on its main campus.
www.ucl.ac.uk - 38,000 students - 11,000 staff
In March 2019, medical researchers at University College London (UCL) said that an HIV-positive patient that doctors treated with antiretroviral therapy had been in remission for 18 months since the treatment was discontinued. The subject is only the second person in history to achieve sustained remission, and suggests that the antiretroviral therapy could provide a cure for HIV. The research was conducted in a collaboration with doctors at Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
Another recent study by UCL scientists revealed that exenatide, a drug commonly used to treat diabetes, may improve motor function for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The discovery could lead to new treatments for the more than 6 million people worldwide who suffer from the neurodegenerative disease.
Established in 1826, UCL was one of the two founding colleges of the University of London and remains a constituent college of that institution. UCL was the first university in England to welcome students of any class or religion, and the first to admit women on equal terms with men. UCL is a founding partner of the Francis Crick Institute, a medical research consortium also involving the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, Imperial College London and King’s College London.
www.tum.de - 36,929 students - 712 staff
In February 2019, engineers using a coding process invented at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) set a new speed record for transmitting data under real-world conditions. The experiment, conducted by German ISP M-Net and Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia, sent a data stream over 100 kilometers from Munich to Regensburg through a single-wavelength fiber optic channel at a speed of 500 gigabits per second. The technique could lead to real-world fiber deployments that exceed transmission speeds of 50 terabits per second – around 50 times faster than indicated in previous experiments.
Elsewhere at the university, scientists have developed a rapid test for Legionnaires’ disease that cuts the time it takes to identify the deadly airborne Legionella pneumophila bacteria from several days to about 35 minutes. TUM also announced a long-term partnership with Google to research new developments in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics. As the first non-European company to become a "TUM Partner of Excellence," Google donated €1 million to the TUM University Foundation to support researchers.
Founded in 1868 by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Technical University of Munich specializes in engineering, natural and life sciences, medicine, management and educational science, with a special focus on entrepreneurship, according to the university. The school enrolls students across three locations, Munich, Freising-Weihenstephan and Garching. Since 1927, 13 TUM professors and alumni have won the Nobel Prize, including Rudolf Mossbauer for Physics and Ernst Otto Fischer for Chemistry. Seventeen staff and student alumni have been awarded the Leibniz Prize, Germany’s highest distinction presented to research scientists, including TUM President Wolfgang Herrmann, who won the award in 1987 for his work in chemistry.
www.manchester.ac.uk - 34,469 students - 2,585 staff
A team of researchers at the University of Manchester have developed a scalable manufacturing process to make yarn out of the supermaterial graphene – an innovation that could lead to a new generation of wearable computers. Graphene consists of carbon atoms bound into a lattice , and is flexible, conductive, and one of the strongest known materials on the planet. It’s been a major area of research at the University of Manchester since the substance was pioneered there in 2002 by faculty members Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov: the university is also home to the UK’s National Graphene Institute, which has produced about a quarter of all patents on the material during the last five years.
In the 2018 financial year the University of Manchester raised more than £368 million in research income, and the university estimates that since 2004, its commercialized technologies have had an economic impact of over £746 million. Manchester has generated more than 100 spinoff companies in the past quarter-century, including Graphene Water Technologies, which is developing new high-efficiency water filtration systems, and Spectromics, a diagnostics company creating rapid point-of-prescription medical tests.
The University of Manchester is the largest single-site university in the UK. With roots stretching back to 1824, the current institution is the result of a 2004 merger between the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. The school has been home to 25 Nobel Prize winners, including Geim and Novoselov, who won the Physics prize in 2010 for their graphene research.
www.uzh.ch - 26,042 students - 4,280 staff
Researchers at the University of Zurich have created a birdlike drone that can swiftly retract and redeploy its rotor arms, allowing it to squeeze through narrow passages while continuing to fly. The innovative design makes the drone ideal for use in rescue missions, where it can squeeze through cracks or holes to reach areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
In 2018 UZH opened Innovation Park Zurich in the city’s suburb of Dubendorf, a new facility that serves as an R&D center and workspace for collaboration between universities, research institutions and private business. Initial projects on the campus are in the areas of air and space travel, robotics and mobility. According to a study released in December 2017 by the League of European Research Universities, UZH added over 6.4 billion Swiss francs in value to the European economy in 2016, generating almost 5 francs for every 1 franc it received in funding.
The University of Zurich is the largest university in Switzerland. It was founded in 1833, and claims to be the first European university established by a democratic state government. In the years since, 12 Nobel Prize winners have either graduated from or taught at the school, including physicists Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger.
www.ethz.ch - 21,397 - students - 528 staff
A team of ETH Zurich professors have constructed what they say is the world’s first house that was designed and constructed almost entirely with digital technologies. The DFAB HOUSE, which opened in February 2019, was not only planned with computers but put together by them using innovations such as 3D-printed concrete ceilings and curved walls created by construction robots. The project was a collaboration with industrial partners including the American chemicals and materials manufacturer Cabot Corporation, and government agencies including the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.
Focus areas for research at ETH Zurich include information processing, new materials and health sciences and technology. The school operates the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center in partnership with IBM Research, which is focused on developing atomic-scale computers. The Functional Genomics Center Zurich, run in partnership with the University of Zurich, researches emerging areas of life sciences, including proteomics, the study of the entire set of proteins in an organism.
Founded in 1855, the public research university boasts notable alumni including Albert Einstein, who was both a student and a professor. Chemist Richard Ernst, who received undergrad and graduate degrees from the university, won a Nobel Prize in 1991 for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
You can read the full rankings here.
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