Falling Walls announces Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2020


“Revolutionary new medicines” – “concepts for a more inclusive society”– “energy transmission without loss” – these are three of the ten Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2020.


Berlin, 9. November 2020. The Falling Walls Foundation announces the Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2020. In ten categories, ranging from life sciences to science in the arts, outstanding research projects will be honoured on 9 November, the day the Berlin Wall came down peacefully in 1989. The ten breakthroughs were identified by a distinguished global jury chaired by Helga Nowotny, president emeritus of the European Research Council. The juries chose the science breakthroughs of the year from 940 research projects that were nominated by academic institutions from 111 countries on all continents. The breakthroughs will be presented and honoured in a freely accessible livestream on 9 November 13.00 Berlin Time (CET) on the Falling Walls website (www.falling-walls.com).

These breakthroughs mark significant progress in a wide range of fields. For human health the use of modified proteins as Troyan horses to treat cancer and viral infections marks a breakthrough as much as microrobots that move like jellyfish in the human body replacing risky surgery. Other breakthroughs qualify refugees for leadership positions or involve hundreds of thousands of volunteers to solve complex innovation challenges. One breakthrough achieves superconductivity at close-to room temperatures. Another set of breakthroughs addresses global challenges as our perception of nature or the human ability to act in solidarity on a global scale.


Please find a detailed description of the Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2020 at the end of this document. 

Jürgen Mlynek, Chairman of the Falling Walls Foundation: „We were overwhelmed by the global response to our open call for research breakthroughs and by the quality of the work. The pandemic put tremendous stress on the research community, as much as it underscored the global need for research progress.“

From the 940 nominations, 650 finalists were chosen. They provided a short video along with their research publications – published in a growing library on the digital platform of Falling Walls. Ten juries reviewed all finalists in ten categories to identify ten winners per category. The winners were publicly presented in ten live Falling Walls Winners Sessions. Finally, the jury picked the best of the best to become Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year.

„The juries were impressed by the global spread of excellence and we truly enjoyed to see ever more researchers to overcome the boundaries of narrow disciplines,“ says Helga Nowotny, chair of the juries.

„Let us work together to turn this crisis into an opportunity for more innovation, better international collaboration and more effective science communication. This is what the Falling Walls Conference stands for. “, says Anja Karliczek, German Minister for Education and Research and supporter of the Falling Walls Foundation.


Falling Walls Conference

The Falling Walls Conference took place for the first time on 9 November 2009 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall. As 9 November marks the first Nazi pogrom in 1938, too, the aim of the Falling Walls Foundation is to celebrate freedom and to commemorate persecution by sharing knowledge. In 2020 the Falling Walls Conference and the Berlin Science Week, which was established to provide a platform for academic institutions worldwide, take place in a digital format which is freely accessible to everybody. Over 200 individual events with over 500 speakers take place from 1 – 10 November 2020. The programme is available and completely free accessible on the website www.falling-walls.com. The programme is made possible by contributions from a wide array of public sources, foundations and corporations.


The Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2020

Descriptions and jury statements on the Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs of the Year


Physical Sciences: Mikhail Eremets

Breaking the Wall to Room-Temperature Superconductivity

Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry, Mainz

Jury Chair Daniel Zajfman, Israel Science Foundation

Towards Room-Temperature Superconductivity. Superconductivity, applied to everyday life, would solve numerous problems in the fields of energy and data transmission. For a long time, superconductivity was only achievable at ultra-cold temperatures that could only be created inside a laboratory. Mikhail Eremets, the Belarusian-born physicist, has pioneered experiments that allow superconductivity at temperatures of a common household freezer by using unusual materials such as metallic hydrogen.

Jury Chair Daniel Zajfman: “The breakthrough made by Mikhail Eremets and colleagues is the discovery of room-temperature superconductors, which will allow an electric current to flow without any resistance”.


Science in the Arts: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Breaking the Wall to Machine Auguries

Studio Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, London

Jury Chair: Horst Bredekamp, Humboldt University Berlin

Machine Auguries. Humankind has forced those species that did not extinct to change its behaviour. Birds for example change the time and tone of their songs. The London-based artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg created new bird voices to help us understand our negative impact on nature. In dialogue with scientists and experts, she uses emerging technologies such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) to create deep fakes that challenge our perception of nature.

Jury Chair Horst Bredekamp: “Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is a young, but worldwide lauded London based artist who works at the cross-section between nature and technology, actively developing it further. Using machine learning to recreate a lost version of a Dawn Chorus, she highlights the loss of bird populations. As in her earlier projects, she combines biology with artificial intelligence in a both deeply critical and poetic sense.“


Life Sciences: Christian Hackenberger

Breaking the Wall to Next Generation Biopharmaceuticals

Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie, Berlin

Jury Chair: Marja Makarow, Biocentre Finland

Protein-based Biopharmaceuticals. Today, cancer treatment by chemotherapy has many negative side effects and treatments against viral infections have shortcomings. Christian Hackenberger found a way to improve the treatment of both. He has pioneered the development of protein-based therapeutics, based on the modification and cellular delivery of antibodies to target cancer and viral infections. This includes the engineering of an inhibitor against human and avian influenza and safer next-gen antibody-drug conjugates. These efforts led to the foundation of the highly successful start-up Tubulis.

Jury Chair Marja Makarow: “Christian Hackenberger’s breakthrough is a technology that enables drug molecules to be attached to antibodies, which find the broken linkers within the patient’s cancer cells, and release the necessary drug only where it should work – without harming normal tissue in its course. The jury concluded that the core idea of this science is fascinating, the theoretical approach great and the potential concerning cancer therapy and virus infection prevention is huge.”


Social Sciences and Humanities: Margaret Levi

Breaking the Wall to an Expanded Community of Fate

Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University

Jury Chair: Shalini Randeria, Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna

A Moral Political Economy – A Community of Fate on a Planetary Scale. Global challenges such as climate change and pandemics call for a new political economy. The work of Margaret Levi explores how the concept “community of fate”, that is common to small groups like families, can be implemented on a global scale to address global challenges. By studying the culture of unions and our collective behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, she proposes tangible approaches towards a global community of fate.

Jury Chair Shalini Randeria: “Margaret Levi’s brilliant project develops a framework to understand how innovative institutions could help individuals to recognize how their destinies are inextricably entangled with distant strangers. She shows us how to create a new political economy model, that promotes planetary well-being without losing sight of economic productivity and innovation. The jury is highly impressed by Levi’s project, which tears down the narrow walls of national solidarity and sovereignty, whilst advocating for a bold conception of Justice”.


Digital Education: Chrystina Russell

Breaking the Wall of Refugee Education

Southern New Hampshire University

Jury Chair: Deborah Quazzo, GSV Ventures, San Francisco

Remote Academic Degrees for Refugees. Tens of millions of people worldwide are refugees with little to no access to education. The Global Education Movement directed by Chrystina Russell created outstanding results in providing degree-level education to refugees. 95 percent of her students graduate and close to 90 percent are employed within six months after graduation. The Global Education Movement unlocks the potential of a new generation of leaders that can take on intractable problems – from poverty and famine to conflict and disease – that once were significant barriers to their success.

Jury Chair Deborah Quazzo: “Chrystina Russell and her Global Education Movement initiative have been awarded for being the organization offering the highest impact with the highest learning efficacy, at the largest opportunity of scale. GEM focuses on millions of displaced people, who are prevented from adequate access to education.”


Science and Innovation Management: Jacob Friis Sherson

Breaking the Wall of Hybrid Intelligence

Aarhus University

Jury Chair: Michael Kaschke, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

The ScienceAtHome Project. The approach by Jacob Sherson to involve hundreds of thousands of people to collaborate with him in addressing complex research challenges marks a breakthrough in Science and Innovation Management. His big idea is to turn a quantum computing issue into a popular video game that – in conjunction with AI – provides insights to researchers from natural, social and cognitive sciences.

Jury member Kumsal Bayazit: “Jacob Sherson and his team bring together hundreds of thousands of citizen science volunteers. ScienceAtHome’s interdisciplinary and collaborative approach combines human and artificial intelligence in an online laboratory, harvesting the power of large-scale human problem-solving. The jury found Jacob’s approach to be a genuine breakthrough for the unique way in which it captures the rich diversity of people – with diverse backgrounds, levels of expertise and perspectives – to solve a problem.”


Engineering and Technology: Metin Sitti

Breaking the Wall to Wireless Medical Robots Inside Our Body

Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems

Jury Chair: Joël Mesot, ETH Zurich

Medical Microrobots. Conventional surgeries are associated with risks. The observations Metin Sitti made in nature, studying worms and jellyfish, inspired a range of versatile microrobots that can navigate and function safely inside the human body. This breakthrough revolutionizes the way we can deliver drugs, pump fluids, perform biopsies or clear clogged vessels.

Jury Chair Joël Mesot: “Metin Sitti’s research points the way to a revolution in medicine. His micrometer-sized soft robots, which have proven to be multi-talented, could be used for both diagnosis and therapy. The idea that such microrobots will enable therapies within human’s blood vessels with pinpoint accuracy, or perform biopsies, is a step closer to non-invasive treatment and robot-supported medicine. The jury congratulates Sitti for his genuine research approach and engineering solutions”.


Emerging Talent: Shawana Tabassum

Breaking the Wall of Neonatal Health Disparity

University of Texas at Tyler

Jury Chair: Claudie Haigneré, European Space Agency, Paris

Neonatal Health Disparity. In rural and poor communities, newborns are often subject to a fatal delay in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like jaundice, sepsis and hypoglycemia. Shawana Tabassum has pioneered a device that allows for the measurement of biomarker levels within just 10 minutes, and at a significantly lower cost than conventional testing. This provides the opportunity for much earlier diagnosis and treatment. The device is easy to use, requires only one drop of blood from the newborn, and is portable. As a result, Shawana Tabassum’s innovation expands the reach of these diagnostic tests and brings help to where it is needed most.

Jury Chair Claudie Haigneré: “Dr. Tabassum has pioneered a device that allows to measure biomarker levels of newborns and infants in rural areas of least developed countries. This reliable device will impact immediately otherwise fatal delays in diagnosis and treatment. She is dedicated to train and motivate other women in the fields of science and engineering”.


Science Engagement Initiatives: Nicolas Bonne

Breaking the Wall to Astronomy for the Vision-Impaired

Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth

Jury Chair: Melanie Smallman, University College London

The Tactile Universe. Where most science engagement projects focus only on people without disabilities, this outreach project involves blind people in a novel and engaging way. Its unique quality is shaped by the fact that its founder, Nicolas Bonne, is a blind astrophysicist himself. Galaxies are printed as 3D-models fitting the size of a human hand. Combined with innovative teaching resources and workshops they allow blind people to experience and understand astrophysics.

Jury chair Melanie Smallman: “The project stands out for three reasons. Firstly, because it reaches an audience that has traditionally faced particular barriers to engage with science, secondly because it has been developed by someone who had to overcome these barriers himself and helps others to overcome them too, and thirdly, because his approach is valuable to engagement with science in multiple areas and parts of the world”


Science Start-Ups: Made of Air GmbH / presented by Allison Dring

Breaking the Wall to Carbon Negative Material

Respond Accelerator, Munich

Jury Chair: Stefan von Holtzbrinck, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

Carbon-negative materials. Up to this day, construction and production has a massive carbon footprint. The breakthrough achieved by Made of Air is to reverse this phenomenon. The science-based start-up combats climate change by bringing carbon-negative materials into the market at scale. It uses low-value biomass waste to produce high value, carbon-negative thermoplastics. Their products pave the way to pollution-eating facades tackling city smog.

Jury Chair Stefan von Holtzbrinck. “Made of Air offers a perfect mix of groundbreaking innovation with a great societal impact, which fulfills sustainability development goals and stands as a robust business model.”



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