Research at ESPCI Paris holds a unique position in the French landscape: it is performed at the fundamental level, aspires to excellence in major scientific areas, while maintaining close ties with industry. Such scheme invariably generates inventions of practical significance on a regular basis. Understanding, discovering and inventing are thus the drivers of ESPCI’s scientific enterprise, within the academic and industry realms alike.
One of ESPCI’s distinctive features is that it carries out fundamental research into areas of major interest to industry, while developing various approaches to practical industrial problems through the deep, fundamental understanding of the mechanisms at play. Performing fundamental research while keeping an eye on applications enables ESPCI research scientists to make an impact at multiple levels.
In the area of energy and sustainable development, for example, ESPCI is engaged in such remarkably varied fields as green chemistry, low CO2 footprint construction materials, materials for photovoltaic applications, green tires, improved vehicle aerodynamics, as well as the fine analysis of toxic chemicals. Although these actions are not identified under an "energy" banner (as they are conducted in laboratories devoted to distinct research topics), they nevertheless address the energy issue through a very fertile and efficient scheme.
In conjunction with its education mission, the School hosts 9 research laboratories, all of them being endorsed and jointly supported by CNRS. Additionally, the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University, the Paris-Diderot University and INSERM also contribute to the activity of some labs, by funding perennial faculty and researchers.
The ESPCI research enterprise is steadily supported by public authorities, including The City of Paris, the Île-de-France Region and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. Competitive grants from the French National Research Agency (Agence Nationale pour la Recherche, ANR), the European Research Council (Starting, Advanced and Synergy Grants), the Pierre-Gilles-de-Gennes Foundation for Research and Paris Sciences et Lettres provide additional funding for research projects and operating costs, PhD students, post-doctoral fellows, as well as for the short- and long-term stay of invited researchers.
Remarkably, ESPCI enjoyed outstanding success to the nationwide competitive call for proposals from the government-sponsored "Investment for the Future" Programme. In this framework, a number of research teams have been receiving considerable funding over the last few years through the Labex (Laboratory of Excellence) and Equipex (Equipment of Excellence) Programmes.
Numerous private corporations also partner with ESPCI to explore scientific issues of interest to their business. Such contracts always cover genuine research endeavors, where the problem is of critical magnitude but is not completely understood, and for which no viable solution has been identified, yet. Furthermore, in the last decade, a number of corporations (most notably Michelin, Saint-Gobain, Total and Safran) have sought to maintain a deeper, larger relationship with the School by sponsoring 5-year institutional "Chairs", covering both research and education activities.
Finally, in the last few years, the newly launched ESPCI - Georges-Charpak endowment fund has been providing for a convenient financial vehicle to seek new corporate partnerships and further deepen the existing ones. It is also uniquely qualified to receive à 5% equity from the start-ups launched by ESPCI researchers and/or incubated in the labs, and to sponsor and facilitate the filing of patents by ESPCI scientists.
Laboratory research areas
Since its foundation, ESPCI Paris has significantly expanded its research engine and increased its performance, encouraging a "soft" management of research to best leverage the researchers’ skills and ideas. The institution hosts small research teams in cutting-edge areas, thus ensuring great flexibility in making advances in groundbreaking research topics. This lightweight structure enables a swift reactivity when a new field emerges in science and technology. Through this research policy, which favors agility and excellence, ESPCI ParisTech has secured its position at the forefront of scientific progress.
Waves & Images
Understanding and manipulating waves and radiations has been a perennial strength of ESPCI, with such towering figures as the Curies or Paul Langevin. The Langevin Institute was founded in 2009 by bringing together two research laboratories of the highest caliber in acoustics and optics, with the aim of leveraging fruitful analogies between these two fields. This has brought tremendous visibility to our researchers’ expertise in waves and images. Most notably, ESPCI can legitimately claim an international leadership position in the area of imaging in complex media, which is particularly vital to medicine, with many scientific, technological and instrumentation breakthroughs. In this line, the Langevin Institute has been launching a great number of start-ups in biomedical imaging and telecommunications, in keeping with the pioneering spirit of ESPCI.
Largely under the impetus of its former director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, ESPCI has earned an international reputation in the area of soft matter, with several labs at the forefront of both fundamental and applied research in this field (most notably, the Sciences & Engineering of Soft Matter lab and the Soft Matter & Chemistry lab, but also the Physics & Mechanics of Heterogeneous Media lab and the Gulliver lab). Soft matter, which ranges from functional materials to complex fluids and from process engineering to the fundamental understanding of how matter flows or self-organizes, spawns many fertile interactions with industry. Private corporations especially value ESPCI’s ability to federate researchers operating in this area within the Paris scientific community, as well as the intellectual property generated.
Physics & Mechanics
The study of soft matter spawned the emergence of a novel paradigm for revisiting the old-fashioned field of mechanics, away from the highly formal, calculus-based traditional approach and leveraging instead the "physicists’ touch", i.e. their experience in making the relevant approximations to break down a complex problem and quickly identify the key parameters that need to be measured and controlled. This groundbreaking approach has proved invaluable for gaining insights not only into soft matter, but also into granular media, materials breakage, hydro- and aerodynamics, etc. It is championed on the world scene by the Physics & Mechanics of Heterogeneous Media lab.
Solid-State Physics & Quantum Materials
ESPCI is also recognized as a world-class institution in the area of solid-state physics and quantum materials, such as Josephson junctions or highly correlated electron systems. It has built cutting-edge expertise and know-how in the area of nanomaterials, including quantum dots, for a range of applications, such as displays and photovoltaic energy generation. The Physics & Materials lab is leading ESPCI’s fundamental research endeavor in this area.
Chemistry, Biology, Innovation
ESPCI was initially founded by industrial chemists and this fruitful interplay between chemistry and industry has been maintained since then. Today, ESPCI is recognized internationally for the development of versatile synthetic methods to access biologically-active compounds having an effect on micro-organisms, on malign tumors or on the Central Nervous System. Numerous collaborations have been established both with French and international pharmaceutical firms. ESPCI is also a leader in the analytical and bioanalytical sciences, with efficient methods being developed for the determination of trace compounds (organic, inorganic) in complex samples (environmental, food, biological samples), for which there is considerable demand from industry. All these activities are developed within the Chemistry, Biology & Innovation Institute, which also adds powerful and unique capabilities in the field of colloids and microfluidics for diagnostics, ultrahigh throughput phenotype or drug screening, synthetic biology, cosmetics and materials synthesis, with multiple start-ups being founded to harness the opportunity to revitalize the corresponding industry sectors.
Industry - as well as public authorities - are indeed quickly recognizing the power of microfluidics for advancing health care and materials development, while significantly reducing costs and environmental impact. In this line, in 2015, the Pierre-Gilles-de-Gennes Institute for Microfluidics will move in a fully upgraded building across the street from ESPCI, bringing together teams from ESPCI, ENS, the Curie Institute and Chimie ParisTech to built the highest density of microfluidics experts in the world.
Analogies Across Scales
Comparing and contrasting situations that are similar but occurring at different size scales is an extremely fruitful intellectual approach, as it enables scientists to leap forward, come up with original insights on intricate problems and invent new ways to describe them. The Gulliver lab has built a unique and renown expertise in leveraging this paradigm to decipher complex issues inspired from experiments at the frontier of soft matter, statistical mechanics and hydrodynamics.
Mass Spectrometry & Proteomics
Proteins are such biomolecules where scale defines function, from 3D folding down to amino acid sequence, from cascade reactions up to signal amplification. In this framework, the Biological Mass Spectrometry & Proteomics lab develops efficient, specific and sensitive methodologies to identify and characterize proteins, peptides and other peptidomimetic molecules such as certain toxins. It maintains a state-of-the-art mass spectrometry platform, which enables scientists to determine amino acid sequences, the oxidation state of proteins, etc. The lab leverages this cutting-edge instrumentation to decipher immune response cascades, the molecular binding of amyloid beta (in Alzheimer’s disease), etc., and to provide support for the scientific community at large.
Biology was introduced at ESPCI by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes in the mid-nineties, both in the education curriculum and in the research landscape, in order to explore new frontiers with chemistry and physics. Today, such endeavor is championed by the Brain Plasticity lab, which is leading the way to build a better understanding of the ability to learn, through the flexibility, or plasticity, of neuronal networks and synapse activity. The lab investigates how specific neurotransmitters or neuromodulators regulate the remodelling of synapses, neurites or functional circuits. It uses single neuron, fly or mammalian integrated circuits models, coupled with advanced imaging methods, electrophysiology and behaviour tests. Since aging-related neuropathologies such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases may affect cognitive ability or alter specific neuromodulator systems, the ESPCI Brain Plasticity lab indeed addresses one of the main challenges of the 21st century in the health care arena.