The University of Helsinki is aiming to be among the world’s best research institutions in life sciences. The Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), established in the beginning of the year, can help usher it into this position.

Life science is an umbrella term that covers biological and medical research fields combined with methods enabled by chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. It emphasises the fact that the study of food, the environment and health are connected.

"The most significant scientific breakthroughs are being made in the intersections of these fields, and this is why the life sciences are increasingly being thought of as a single area," says Tomi Mäkelä, director of the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE).

The University of Helsinki has life science research on three of its campuses, Viikki, Meilahti and Kumpula. It is no modest endeavour, as can be read from the numbers: 830 principal investigators, 230 doctoral dissertations and a €250 million annual budget.

Researchers in the life sciences generate 6,200 publications every year, meaning an average of 17 each day. Annually, they receive 32,000 citations in other publications of the field.

While individual University of Helsinki research groups in life sciences have received global acclaim, the University’s position alongside the world’s top life science universities has remained unestablished.

However, the field’s competitive position within the University has been recognised, and the €7 million of funding from the Academy of Finland has enabled the University to heighten its profile in the field. Life science has become one of the University’s three research focus areas.

Tomi Mäkelä

Tomi Mäkelä was chosen as the leader of HiLIFE in an international recruitment process. 

The creation of HiLIFE

The Helsinki Institute of Life Science operates on three campuses with the intention of honing the cutting edge of life science research.

The Institute is completely international. It currently employs researchers from 30 different countries and uses English as the working language, also in the administration services.

The Institute boasts 14,000 square metres of facilities, spread over the campuses. HiLIFE comprises three former University of Helsinki independent institutes: the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), the Institute of Biotechnology and the Neuroscience Centre. In addition to this, HiLIFE supports research in the life sciences across faculty boundaries.

“HiLIFE belongs to all the University's researchers in life sciences,” says Jonna Katajisto, Head of Administration at HiLIFE.

"HiLIFE belongs to all the University's researchers in life sciences."

One example of this is the HiLIFE infrastructure project, which brought the life science laboratories and other infrastructures together. The goal is to serve research and to increase cooperation opportunities between research groups.

 “Bringing the infrastructures together has already provided researchers with new insights. No single method can do everything – several methods must be used to solve a research problem,” says Docent Anu Airaksinen of the importance of the new approach.

She is in charge of one of the HiLIFE infrastructure platforms, which combines the University’s laboratories involved in animal imaging.

syklotroni

Anu Airaksinen and cyclotron.

The infrastructure project included an international evaluation which provided valuable feedback on the quality of the research equipment, facilities and cooperation. HiLIFE is funding infrastructure development and maintenance with over €5 million during the next three years based on this feedback.

Life science research in flux

”The technological developments in stem cell cultures and genome modification are leading to significant breakthroughs in life science. It’s wonderful to be able to recruit new talents in this area. Some of our new recruits are former expats who have worked in the world’s best research institutes for years,” says Mäkelä.

One of them is Sara Wickström, one of HiLIFE’s first tenure track professors. The tenure track is a three-level path culminating in a permanent professorship.

After graduating as a doctor from the University of Helsinki, Wickström built a successful research career in the esteemed Max Planck Institute of Ageing in Germany.

She is arriving in Helsinki with members of her research team working on the joint effects of stem cells and the tissue environment. The goal is to understand this interaction better to enable new, more effective stem cell treatments. Wickström’s research is also discussed in the latest issue of Yliopisto magazine.

 “It was great to find an internationally competitive position in Finland which enabled me to return after many years,” says Wickström.

Thus far, a total of five HiLIFE professors have been recruited, selected from an international group of 350 excellent applicants. In addition, the life science Faculties have recruited four Assistant/Associate Professors among the applicants.

"It’s great that we've managed to turn brain drain to brain gain. Especially young  top researchers have the opportunity to move with their funding both in Europe and in the US to the most attractive research environments," says Mäkelä.

We've managed to turn brain drain to brain gain.

In addition to the dedicated HiLIFE professorships, the Institute supports researchers in the life sciences across faculty boundaries through three-year HiLIFE Fellowships.

The first round of applications for the funding received 154 applications, of which the best 56 candidates were selected based on an international peer review.

Support for commercialisation

In addition to research, HiLIFE can also support the commercialisation of innovations created in the course of life science research.

The first commercialisation grants were awarded in the beginning of October, and the next round of applications is already underway. The University of Helsinki is currently the home of more than a dozen life science start-ups.

SLUSH y Science is an open event alongside the SLUSH start-up event in Helsinki in December.

The grants help push the commercialisation process forward, but the intention is to also recruit bigger funders. SLUSH y Science is an open event alongside the SLUSH conference in Helsinki in December.