Big in nanotechnology

The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft will celebrate its tenth anniversary on 10 March. In terms of money, the Kavli Foundation’s annual contribution is only approximately one per cent of the budget, but the name is of inestimable value.

Delft, 17 July 2003 – In the summer of 2003, Professor Hans Mooij (quantum transport, Faculty of Applied Sciences) receives a strange e-mail. A certain ‘Kavli Foundation’ claims that its goal is to promote research in nanoscience, astronomy and neuroscience by sponsoring three or four institutes for each field. It also wants to know if TU Delft would be interested in establishing such an institute.

“I had never heard of Kavli,” recalls Mooij. True, he had seen Norwegian cookies with that name while on vacation. But it was unlikely the foundation was connected with those.

Meanwhile, Nigerian spam is everywhere, offering fantastic sums of money in exchange for a small deposit. Mooij is therefore on his guard. A Google search reveals that Fred Kavli is an industrialist from Norway who made a fortune out of supplying sensors for aeronautic, aerospace, automotive and industrial applications. In 2000, Kavli sold his company Kavlico and subsequently dedicated himself to philanthropy. He chose three fundamental scientific fields for his philanthropic work: one concerning the very small (nanoscience), one concerning the very large (cosmology) and one concerning the highly complex (neuroscience). He assembled a management team consisting of university heavyweights who sent chairman David Auston out into the world to find the best research groups. The former Bell Labs researcher and university director eventually comes across the department of Hans Mooij in Delft.

Santa Barbara, 12 December 2003 – Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera, is the place of residence of many wealthy individuals, including Fred Kavli. It is here that Hans Mooij and Cees Dekker meet with Kavli and the management of the Kavli Foundation. The study on the first floor provides a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. Dekker recalls the conversation and the unusual atmosphere in which it took place. Kavli himself is exceptionally friendly and soft-spoken, but remains in the background. The conversation is conducted by the members of the Board – all famous names from American universities. They ask Dekker and Mooij about their research, about the support and their goals. Dekker gets the feeling that he is being screened. “It was really a job interview.” Next, it’s Mooij’s turn to talk about his research.

“Looking back, I think they wanted to know who would be the first director,” says Mooij now.

The discussion is temporarily discontinued in order to watch the sunset. Afterwards, everyone returns to their place. Eventually, Kavli speaks. “Do you want to be the director?” he asks Mooij. Mooij answers that he does. “I think they had already decided to establish a Kavli Institute at TU Delft, but they still had to choose a director.” The meeting ends shortly thereafter and the party goes into town to have a meal.

Delft city hall, 5 February 2004 – Mysterious decision-making turns out to be typical of the Kavli Foundation. During a reception of the Kavli management board in the Delft city hall, Kavli says something that Mooij can only interpret as an admission that TU Delft has been selected. Even so, he decides to ask for confirmation: “Does this mean that we will become a Kavli Institute?” The answer is affirmative.

Kavli still has a question for the Executive Board of TU Delft, which is also in attendance. The Kavli Foundation will deposit 7.5 million dollars in five annual instalments as capital, with the institute receiving the interest. Kavli, suddenly a businessman, wants to know what the Executive Board will offer in return. The board decides to counter the offer and promises a comparable amount. The documents are signed in New York on 10 March 2004, after which the Delft Kavli Institute becomes a fact. The sister institutes of Cornell University and CalTech also sign. “The financial contribution is not what is most important,” says the current director, Cees Dekker. The contribution is only two to three hundred thousand euros a year in interest earnings – roughly one per cent of the departmental budget. “What really matters is that they designated us, together with CalTech and Cornell, as the top 3 in nanoscience, after a worldwide search. That provides us with considerable prestige. We were later joined by Harvard and Berkeley. Five leading institutes: ours and four located in the US. We are very proud of that.”

Ilulissat, Greenland, 11-15 June 2007 – Seventeen renowned scientists have accepted the invitation to take part in the Kavli Futures Symposium on bionanotechnology. Dekker is on the list, which also includes Stephen Chu (1997 Nobel Prize laureate and former Secretary of Energy under President Obama) and Freeman Dyson (legendary physicist from Princeton). This is one of those events that could never have been organised from Delft, but which the Kavli Foundation is able to organise. Dekker organised the symposium with Paul McEuen (Cornell University) in order to bring together a group of great minds halfway between the US and Europe and give them the chance to think about the distant future of nanotechnology and biology, and about the fusion of biology and nanotechnology into artificial cyborg cells. Philip Ball, editor of the journal Nature, reports on the symposium.

In their final report1, the researchers state that nanotechnology is now mainly being used to study living cells. However, nanotechnology might eventually play a role within cells. A literal fusion of biology and nanotechnology will occur. ‘In fifty years, synthetic biology will be just as widespread as electronics is now,’ the final document states. ‘And just as with electronics, the impact of this development cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, the decisions we make today will have significant consequences for the future.’

Ayers Rock, Zoetermeer, 16 September 2010 – Hans Mooij is having an easy time on this Kavli Day. He hangs from a rope and descends majestically along the climbing wall. Dozens of employees of the Kavli Institute watch him intently from below. They see a small orange flag sticking out of his trouser pocket.

Cees Dekker climbs up from below. He moves skilfully up past the coloured protrusions. He stops a few times to plan his route and then continues climbing. Somewhere below the middle point, he encounters Hans Mooij, who is hanging on to the ropes. Mooij takes the little flag out of his pocket and hands it to Dekker. The sound of cheering and applause can be heard below. The 68-year old emeritus has passed the baton and Cees Dekker is now the new director of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft. Since 2010, the institute has consisted of two departments: Quantum Nanoscience and Bionanoscience. The Delft institute is the first one to receive a second grant (of five million dollars) from the Kavli Foundation, mainly due to the development of bionanoscience. The little orange flag now has a place in Cees Dekker’s bookcase.

Boston, 28 February 2012 – Professor Leo Kouwenhoven has news for the congress of the American Physical Society. It has been exactly two years since he decided that Majoranas were an interesting object of study. Due to persistent rumours, the room is crowded. A reporter from Nature later describes the room as a subway station during rush hour.

Kouwenhoven presents the measurement results of the previous month, which show a remarkably stable peak in the conductance. “Have we seen Majorana fermions?” he asks at the conclusion of his presentation. “I’d say it’s a cautious yes.”

Natureimmediately writes ‘Quest for quirky quantum particles may have struck gold’, which leads to Kouwenhoven and Majoranas becoming international news. In Delft, the telephone rings incessantly and the mailbox overflows with requests for an interview. The answer is always the same: “Thank you for your interest, but we have not yet published anything and we therefore cannot accede to your request.”

On 23 March 2012, the publication reaches Science, which immediately has the piece reviewed. On 12 April 2012, the following article is published: ‘Signatures of Majorana Fermions in Hybrid Superconductor-Semiconductor Nanowire Devices.’ This marks the start of the publicity. On a wild Thursday, RTL, NOS and Reuters pay a visit to the lab. In the afternoon, Kouwenhoven calls the BBC and in the evening he appears on the TV show Pauw & Witteman. Meanwhile, he also has a chat on the Radio 1 news programme ‘Met het oog op Morgen’(‘With an eye on Tomorrow’). ‘A minuscule particle has sparked a revolution’, the daily newspaper Trouw observed dryly the next day.

Delft, 6 February 2014 – “Oh, I could have guessed that,” responds Dekker when asked what his plans are for the next ten years. “Ten years ago, we presented ourselves as an institute for nanoscience, because we believed that nanotechnology was not a hype, but rather the fundamental scale on which matter is arranged, from quantum interactions to the building blocks of living matter. Much of the research for Quantum Nanoscience will focus on the quantum computer in the next ten years. Gaining an understanding of cell molecules is essential in Bionanoscience. I even have ideas about creating a living cell or parts of one myself. When Richard Feyman died, he left a quote on his blackboard: ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand.’ And he was right; the best way to truly understand a living cell is by creating one.”


2003 – First contacts between Fred Kavli, Hans Mooij and Cees Dekker.

2004 – On 10 March, the documents for the establishment of the Delft Kavli Institute and two sister institutes at Cornell University and CalTech are signed in New York.

2004 – The Casimir Research School is founded by the Delft Kavli Institute and Leiden University (LION).

2006 – Nanoscience workshop for journalists of Die Zeit, Nature News, The Economist and seven others. De Volkskrant does not attend.

2007 – The first Kavli Futures Symposium is held in Greenland and deals with the fusion of biology and nanotechnology.

2008 – The Kavli Institute starts Bionanoscience and receives 5 million dollars from the Kavli Foundation, in addition to the previous 7.5 million.

2009 – The opening of the Kavli Nanolab with cleanroom and nanoproduction facilities.

2010 – The Kavli Institute now consists of the QuantumNano and Bionano departments. On 16 September, Cees Dekker succeeds Hans Mooij as the director of the institute.

2011 – The introduction of the Kavli newsletter and the twice-yearly Kavli Delft Thesis Prize for the best PhD thesis.

2012  – The start of the Bachelor’s degree programme in nanobiology in collaboration with Erasmus University. The discovery of the Majorana fermion.

2013 – The founding of the Qutech Centre for uniting science and industry behind a quantum computer.

2013 – On 21 November, founder and chairman Fred Kavli dies. The institutes are ensured.

2014 – The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft will celebrate its tenth anniversary on 10 March.



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