NOVA University: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with interdisciplinary research

NOVA University Lisbon, a comprehensive young European public higher education institution, promotes collaborative and interdisciplinary research that will help to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

NOVA University Lisbon is a comprehensive young European public higher education institution that takes pride in its dynamism and willingness to take on the most important challenges for societies in the 21st century, contributing decisively to building a better future. NOVA continues to have talent development as its core business, offering an education of excellence. It promotes collaborative and interdisciplinary research, from fundamental to applied research, that will help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations (UN).

NOVA 4 The Globe, a strategy for global development

‘NOVA 4 The Globe’ is an interdisciplinary platform that promotes dialogue across members of NOVA’s community towards sustainability. N4G is the natural platform for co-operation with international partners on sustainable development and capacity building with a focus on Africa and Latin America.

NOVA 4 The Globe seeks to enhance the societal impact of NOVA as a university in the local communities and to facilitate its internal organisational transformation towards sustainable best practices, complying with the Green Deal, the Paris Agreement, and the Sustainable Development Goals. NOVA aims to  become a reference among young European universities in terms of commitment towards an innovative, knowledge-based policy for sustainability, delivering scientific, technological, economic, environmental, and societal impact.

NOVA’s commitment to meeting the SDG is evaluated by Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. NOVA highlights its efforts addressing good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, industry, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, peace, justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the Goals. NOVA’s performance is fully anchored in the excellence of scientific knowledge and competences that its different academic units produce and disseminate. In its 2020 results, NOVA was ranked sixth in SDGs 9 and 16, and 13th in SDG 5, among European Young Universities (under 50 years old).

NOVA: a young European research university

NOVA is a research university that combines fundamental research with collaborative agendas, tackling real problems and challenges posed by society, their institutions, and by the SDGs. Promoting scientific research of high international visibility and impact is a key priority. The Leiden ranking bears witness to this as it ranks the impact of NOVA published research as the highest amongst Portuguese institutions.

The alignment of NOVA’s initiatives with SDG 5 is a commitment expressed in its Strategic Plan, in which Gender Equality in Research is of great importance.

In 2019, Leiden ranked NOVA in the first national place with the highest proportion of publications with female authors (50.6%), also occupying the sixth position in Europe and ninth in the world. NOVA participates in the European project ‘SPEAR’ that began in the first quarter of 2019 and which aims to develop institutional changes, with a view to increasing the participation of women in research and innovation, as well as improving their career prospects.

Research at NOVA has been growing, both at the qualitative and quantitative level. NOVA currently hosts 40 R&D units, 24 of which represent partnerships between NOVA and other national institutions. 88% of these  were considered units of excellence, placing NOVA in the top five of national universities in this evaluation exercise with international recognition.

The growth and consolidation of the technological and scientific system, making it more competitive in the national and international context, is a priority of Portugal’s science and technology policy. NOVA shares the same ambition and strives to attract significant resources from different funding mechanisms. The funding from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT, I.P.) makes an enormous contribution to the funding achieved by NOVA in R&I projects and is complemented by other national sources such as Portugal 2020, IFAP, or EEA Grants. Based on national funding, NOVA has recently integrated more than 500 highly qualified and internationally competitive researchers in its academic and R&D Units.

Horizon 2020 is the international source from which NOVA has obtained its largest amount of funding. NOVA is the second Portuguese university in absolute funding volume by H2020, but the first by far in per capita terms. H2020 awarded almost €100m to NOVA, financing around 200 European projects and 21 European Research Council (ERC) grants. NOVA was the first Portuguese university distinguished with an ERC Synergy grant in the field of humanities, which reflects the work of excellence that NOVA has been developing, reinforcing the importance of sustainability and interdisciplinary as strategic pillars.

NOVA has been investing in training its researchers through the TALENT@NOVA programme, with the aim of increasing their performance at national and international level. The NOVA Doctoral School offers a strategic training programme in transversal skills courses (e.g., Research Ethics, Design Thinking, and Information Literacy) to PhD students, supervisors and young researchers, as a complement of their training.

Innovation and value creation at NOVA

Innovation and entrepreneurship are part of NOVA’s culture, being widely promoted within the university’s ecosystem as a way of fostering knowledge transfer and transforming research results into social and economic value.

NOVA places a particular focus on promoting a knowledge-based and high-impact value creation activity through collaborations with industry and society. NOVA University has embraced the governmental initiative to create Collaborative Laboratories (CoLABs), structures that join companies, universities, technological centres, and other institutions to implement research and innovation agendas aligned with market and societal demands, promoting the creation of highly qualified jobs. NOVA currently participates in nine CoLABs, co-ordinating two of them (VOH.COLAB and InnovPlantProtect) and hosting another CoLAB in its technological campus (AlmaScience). NOVA currently has more than 200 active R&D&I  projects with industry and non-profits, including multinational companies, which is indicative of its commitment to respond to today’s challenges of industry and social sectors.

InnovPlantProtect (InPP) is a CoLAB led by NOVA, with partners such as municipal authorities, state laboratories, sectoral associations, and national and multinational companies, including Bayer and Syngenta.

InPP produces innovative solutions to provide targeted protection for specific crops, including the formulation of biopesticides and the development of new plants resistant to pests and diseases, thus allowing a substantial reduction in crop losses and an increase in productivity, always within a framework of environmental responsibility.

The impact of InPP will be observable in terms of the products and services it develops, as well as at the social and regional level, as it will drive the creation of qualified jobs and the densification of the interior of the country.

NOVA currently holds more than 200 active patents (70% of them at the international level) in several fields – from biotechnology, health-, and life sciences to engineering, materials, and ICT. As part of its policy to stimulate the creation of more spin-out companies, NOVA has decided to give benefits to formally recognised spin-offs, such as: exclusive and royalty-free licensing of the IP rights until the commercialisation stage; duly authorised time allocation for teachers or researchers to support the commercial development of the project; and facilitated access to space or advanced equipment available at the University.

NOVA stands out as an entrepreneurial and engaged university. Over the past five years, nearly 10,000 students at NOVA were involved in entrepreneurship training and competitions.

In 2019, NOVA launched a Mentor Network with experts from different areas of knowledge, (entrepreneurs, consultants, and venture capitalists) to help  NOVA’s community to develop their business ideas.

The NOVA School of Science and Technology trains more than 1,000 students each year, in what is probably the largest university entrepreneurship course in Europe.

Since 2017, NOVA has been the main academic partner of the European Innovation Academy in Portugal, a recognised leader in tech entrepreneurship education for students that aims to educate a million entrepreneurs by 2025.

The NOVA Starters Academy is a ten-year-old training programme developed to equip students with tools to create innovative business models, using a multidisciplinary approach to tackle global challenges.

‘NOVA Sciencepreneur’ is an initiative designed for scientists who are seeking to create value from their research activities. Sciencepreneur wants to equip the participants with value creation lenses and has a hands-on approach, focusing on developing the commercialisation route for their technologies or scientific breakthroughs.

NOVA currently boasts more than 85 active startups created over the last 15 years, and together they have raised more than €500m and include a Unicorn startup company (Outsystems) and an IPO in 2018 by the fintech startup Raize.

CellmAbs – From fighting cancer to COVID-19

CellmAbs is a NOVA spin-off founded in 2019 and a success case of translational research. CellmAbs’ technology is the outcome of years of research conducted at NOVA in collaboration with Porto Institute of Oncology (IPO Porto) and HZDR in Germany. NOVA led the licensing of the proprietary technology that is being protected worldwide.  CellmAbs is developing novel anti-glycan therapies and immunotherapies for solid tumours, by targeting tumour-specific glycans. The company is already developing four therapeutic modalities:

  • A syaloglycan immune-checkpoint;
  • An Antibody Drug Conjugate;
  • CAR T-cell therapy; and
  • A bispecific.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the spin-out company has also been exploring ways of leveraging its innovative cancer therapies in the fight against the coronavirus, with very promising results on using its antibodies for neutralising SARS-CoV-2. CellmAbs initially raised around €1.5m to fund the preclinical development of its drugs in the largest Portuguese immuno-oncology seed round ever seen and is already raising a Series A. The company has been showcased in several international platforms and events, such as BIO-Europe (selected and one of the Scrips 10 to watch companies),, and the Biotech Showcase during the JPMorgan Healthcare conference, and aims to reach first-in-human trials for the treatment of a wide range of solid tumours with one of its lead candidate drugs within the next couple of years.

The Invisible Project

The Invisible Project led by NOVA scientists won the European prize Horizon Impact Award 2020. The project allowed the development of the first display produced with eco-sustainable materials, currently marketed by several companies. Fully aligned with the European Green Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals, INVISBLE generated a new technological field with widespread applications in several industries.

INVISIBLE was developed at the Materials Research Centre (CENIMAT) of NOVA School of Science and Technology, in partnership with SAMSUNG.

NOVA Health, from molecule to patient’s bedside

NOVA University has a strong commitment to health sciences that encompasses all its nine academic units ranging from molecular biology to the health of populations. Three of NOVA’s schools are directly committed to health: NOVA Medical School, the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the National School of Public Health. Two others are dedicated to molecular biology and life materials, thereby contributing to life sciences: the School of Biotechnology (Faculty of Science and Technology) and the School of Molecular Biology (Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology António Xavier). The Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, NOVA School of Business and Economics, NOVA Information Management School, and the NOVA Law, do collaborate to research in health sciences, namely covering social, economic, and strategic dimensions of health.

We may rightly say that NOVA covers the entire health spectrum – from molecule to patient’s bedside – linking fundamental biology, technology and healthcare, ultimately improving the health of populations. Fulfilling this mission, we highlight four projects that combine research and field initiatives to innovate and generate value to community:

Patient innovation

Patient innovation is an online platform founded as a spin-off of joint collaborative research on user innovation (in healthcare) and medical sciences, with researchers from Portugal and the USA. It aims at collecting and sharing innovative solutions developed by individuals afflicted with a health disorder as well as by their caregivers. They can connect in order to share and create solutions to cope with a health-related problem. The platform holds a portfolio of over 2,400 med-tech products, with more than 1,400 solutions posted in the platform from over 100 countries. The platform receives around 1.4 million visits per year and has a positive impact on the lives of many patients from around the globe.

Value for Health

Value for Health (VOH.CoLAB) has the mission of measuring value in Health. The founding partners are NOVA University, CUF (a private healthcare provider in Portugal), Fraunhofer AICOS, and Vodafone Portugal. They centralised competencies and resources to accelerate the fundamental restructuring of healthcare delivery towards a paradigm shift to value-based healthcare and patient empowerment. The research team has been working with clinical teams, the national healthcare system, and companies in the healthcare sector by implementing pilot studies with healthcare providers to validate the use of Internet-of-Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence to support better health outcomes.


Smart4Health is a major European initiative for digital health and the largest research project ever co-ordinated by Portugal under Horizon 2020, with funding of €22m. The project aims to respond to the diverse needs for a digital Europe, ensuring citizens’ secure access to health, supporting the data infrastructure for research, and facilitating the interaction between patients and health professionals. Smart4Health aims, through  the exchange of Electronic Health Records (EHR), to empower a personalised approach in citizen-centred health and to promote the development of digital solutions and services aimed at citizen’s well-being and health.

Smart4Health will allow the integration, complementarity, and co-operation between the different profiles of EHR currently used in Europe, bridging this diversity and the information generated and made available by the citizen, through different IoT technological devices. The use of new digital technologies, combined with Smart4Health services, represents a radical change in the way personalised health services with personal health data are related with the citizen, allowing health data access at anytime and anywhere in the world.


ICU4Covid – Cyber-Physical Intensive Care Medical System for COVID-19 – is one of the 23 projects selected by the European Commission in the context of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. ICU4Covid was qualified in the category of the development of medical technologies and digital tools to improve detection, supervision, and assistance to patients – thanks to, amongst other things, the development of new devices that allow a faster, cheaper, and more numerous diagnoses (including at distance), and new technologies that protect healthcare workers.

Please note, this article will also appear in the fifth edition of our quarterly publication.

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