One of VITO's strategic objectives is to train young people in applied scientific research so that they can add value to the Flemish economy and industry. Around 80 PhD students are currently working as researchers at VITO. Half of them come from abroad.

One of VITO's main tasks is to accelerate the transition from scientific research to genuinely applicable technologies that can be incorporated into the Flemish economy and thus offer added value to it. "This is our response to an urgent demand from the industry", explains Walter Eevers, R&D Director at VITO. "Among other things, we are very adept at carrying out techno-economic analyses, including when studying their application in an economic sense. Does it make sense to continue with a technology? When can we expect a breakthrough? With this approach, we quickly familiarise young researchers who often still have an academic mentality from when they were at university. By doing so, we help bridge the gap between basic research and industrial needs."

More research efficiency

VITO is collaborating with all Flemish universities (umbrella organisations) on its PhD programme. In its collaboration with the Leuven association, the focus is primarily on energy-related subjects, whilst in the collaboration with the University of Antwerp, chemistry and the environment form the focus. The terms and conditions of a PhD at VITO are also comparable to 'conventional' PhDs: a mandate lasts four years and the remuneration is also (almost) the same. Not all PhD students work full-time at VITO. Some have their office at the university and come to Mol for specific training courses or infrastructure.

The collaboration with universities offers advantages in terms of research efficiency. "By joining forces with us, not only is more funding available for academic departments, but they can also make use of our research infrastructure, and vice versa", explains Eevers. "It also prevents us from investing in the same thing in different locations in Flanders."

Knowledge and innovation from abroad

Some 80 researchers are currently working on a PhD at VITO. And one interesting finding is that approximately half of them come from abroad. "Some technological innovations are already much more developed abroad", explains Karen Vercammen of VITO. "In that case, it would be silly to keep searching within your own biotope. Our PhD programme therefore also brings knowledge and innovation to Flanders in the interest of the future of the Flemish economic fabric."

A good example here is the expertise in fourth-generation heating networks. "These are very well developed in the Scandinavian countries", explains Eevers. "That is why we have a number of collaboration projects running with knowledge institutions there (DTU in Denmark and the University of Lund in Sweden). It is therefore possible for a Flemish PhD student to carry out research under our umbrella with a supervisor in Sweden."

Continuous innovation

Can foreign researchers easily find their way to Mol? Vercammen explains: "We strongly promote the available places on an international level as well, for example through Euraxess (a European platform for research mobility). We also find that researchers often come to us specifically because they want to work on a particular subject, such as sustainable technology. They then come to us with the conviction to work towards a better world. And they are right to do so, as sustainability is the core of our mission."

Finally, the PhD programme also contributes to the rejuvenation of VITO. After all, PhD students make up ten percent of the entire workforce. "PhD students are among our youngest researchers. They are able to cast a fresh eye over a discipline, and this helps our permanent employees to stay focused. Moreover, there is continuous innovation as a result of their comings and goings", explains Eevers.

Concrete application in the near future

The applications for a PhD at VITO are assessed by an independent jury consisting of about ten academics, which convenes a few times a year, depending on the number of applications and the needs of VITO. It is chaired by Luc Sterckx, guest professor of Chemical Engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven and ex-top executive of various industrial players, such as Indaver, Oleon and EDF/Luminus.

"Our jury includes people with purely an industrial and technological background, as well as academics from the Flemish universities", explains Sterckx. "As a guest professor and industrialist, I am somewhere in between." Every application is thoroughly assessed by the jury on the basis of ten criteria that show the different aspects of the PhD candidate and his/her research. "With regard to the latter, we look, for example, at the originality and feasibility of the research, as well as at its strategic importance for our economy. What is more, we also check whether the candidate has sufficient scientific knowledge, is able to work independently and whether good supervision is available (both at the collaborating university and at VITO)."

According to Sterckx, one of the major differences between this and a PhD at a university is the concrete applicability of the research in the near future. "It is therefore not purely scientific research, the application of which is not immediately evident. I am personally seriously concerned about the applicability in our own industry. Does the research meet an industrial need and is there an economic basis? Nowadays, I supervise and coach a large number of start-ups and I see the problems that arise when translating new technology into an industrial reality there. I try to communicate this experience."

Close to industrial reality

Lies Eykens obtained her PhD on research into membrane technology at VITO in 2017. Membrane distillation allows aqueous solutions with high salt concentrations to be purified. In her research, she primarily studied how the technology can be brought closer to the market. After her PhD, she worked as a researcher at VITO with the Chem² team for a further two years. She has now been working at Umicore in Olen for a few months.

"At Umicore, I work on environmental technology, with a strong focus on water treatment", says Eykens. "Not specifically for the Olen site, but for all sites worldwide." How did she find the transition to industry? "The major advantage of carrying out a PhD at VITO is that the research ties in closely with the industrial reality – although this of course depends on the specific subject area. The transition from lab to pilot scale was of particular added value."

The two years at VITO after her PhD were of extra added value. "During that period, I worked on a wide variety of projects instead of one specific topic, in which a few large companies were also involved. That was very informative", explains Eykens.