Lars Samuelson Orchestrates Atoms

Lars Samuelson, one of the world’s leading nanoscience researchers, works in a red brick building nestled among villas on Professorsgatan, Lund. He is a physicist who founded NanoLund, Lund University’s interdisciplinary research center that has laid the foundation for nanotechnology-based companies such as Sol Voltaics, QuNano, GLO, and Hexagem.

Having completed his doctorate in Lund and postdoctoral research at IBM Research Laboratories in California, Lars Samuelson became a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. This is where Lars Samuelson was working when Lund University’s vice-chancellor Håkan Westling offered him not only a position, but also the capital necessary to build a nano lab. Hence, Samuelson returned home to Lund in 1988 to found the Nanometer Structure Consortium, northern Europe’s first nano center. Since that time the the work of the center has expanded; approximately 330 researchers and doctoral candidates work there today. Today, after almost 30-years, Lars Samuelson has left his role in the leadership of the research, which is now in the hands of Professor Heiner Linke, and Lars Samuelson is now a Strategic Senior Advisor for NanoLund.

Nanoscience is about studying, manipulating, and assembling matter at the atomic level. In 2002, Samuelson demonstrated that it is possible to combine substances with different properties in a nanowire and in this way create materials with special properties. Since he was one of the first scientists in the world to manage this, a long and productive period followed, which resulted in the scientific journal Nano Letters ranking him as the third most productive researcher in nanoscience in the first decade of the 21st century. During the same period the Swedish Research Council ranked the Nanometer Structure Consortium, which has since changed its name to NanoLund, among the top ten Swedish research environments. Lars Samuelson is currently one of the top 1% most cited researchers worldwide, according to Web of Science.

These many research successes led Samuelson to seriously consider how these research results could be used. “When we started in 1990, our consortium grew quickly and we only cared about scientific publications, but after a while I got a bad conscience so I hired someone, Lars-Åke Ledebo, to take care of industrial contacts and patents.”

Once Ledebo entered into the business side of the work, the center’s research results began to be transformed into companies. In 2004, QuNano became the first such company. QuNano is primarily an IP holding company that looks at patents as the basis for industrial development. Then GLO, a company working with extremely small pixels, was founded in 2007. “Every pixel is controllable in all colors and it can be used in clocks, cars, and VR. This can be huge,” says Samuelson. A revolutionary idea of Samuelson’s for a way to manufacture semiconductor materials led to a technique to produce better solar cells, which is now used by the company Sol Voltaics. Additionally, Hexagem, founded in 2016, works with gallium nitride (GaN) in high-quality power electronics.

Samuelson is both a founder and board member for all four of these companies. He has followed the entirety of their development from research experiments involving the very smallest of particles to board room business decisions. This has, of course, given him unique insights into what is most important when transforming research results into business.

“The most important thing is access to long-term risk capital, which is in short supply in Europe. It is also important to bring in people who understand the business side and can create the financial conditions. You shouldn’t think that as an enterprising professor you’re a functioning industrial leader. You should be aware that it is the CEO who drives the car, but I usually say that as the head of research I can sit in the backseat and whisper in the ear of the driver. In addition, my research position can facilitate when spin-out companies enter into international collaborations.”

“Another important aspect is that the two worlds of the research environment and the company should be in line with each other. A research breakthrough should be patent-protected and can become the foundation of a company. In the company, the technology can become more advanced and it can create even better conditions for university research. Furthermore, the research world gains credibility by starting and supporting companies.”

In Allan Larsson’s book I vetenskapens värld (In the World of Science), Samuelson discusses several success factors behind NanoLund. One was to create an interdisciplinary environment where there were fewer barriers between faculties. Another factor was the development of a common map so that everyone was striving to achieve in the same direction.

“Lund is a fantastic place to be. Here, whatever mission you have, you can use a synthesis of different techniques and sciences. I sometimes compare this situation to a piano with fifty keys, corresponding to research specializations, where you can strike different chords with different competencies. When you put together high competencies, new resonances are created and you can do things you could not otherwise have done.”

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Text: Caroline Wendt
Translation: Finlay McGregor
Photo: Caroline Wendt

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