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Joost Frenken leaves ARCNL for the University of Groningen

About the successful balancing act between fundamental research and the interaction with ASML
On 1 January 2014, director Joost Frenken (1958) became the very first employee of the NWO Institute Advanced Research Center for Nanolithography (ARCNL). Exactly 8.5 years later, with a record of 22 PhD graduations, 220 publications and 150 interesting ideas for partner ASML, he is leaving the institute that now has 100 employees. Joost will become the Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Groningen. In this farewell interview, he talks about “not simply sitting it out till your retirement”, the difficulties in the first few years of ARNCL and the much-needed family feeling. ‘The role of ARCNL is to do things that will eventually become of interest to the R&D (research & development) of ASML.’

Mission completed

‘I never felt that I was on a tenured contract’, is the immediate answer Joost gives to the question why he is leaving. ‘My period was for 10 years and I’ve completed 8.5 years. I had linked my appointment to the setting up of ARCNL. Now that moment has come: we have a definitive size and a strong research programme with an equally strong club of people who manage without me. That club receives a lot of recognition from all parties: ASML, NWO and the universities. Such a comfortable position also brings a risk with it: satisfaction could easily cause you to fall asleep behind the wheel.’ Joost therefore considered his mission to be completed and thought about several options, such as continuing the appointment until his pension or stepping back as a group leader. He reasoned that a next successful step in science would require a longer period of time. At NWO, Joost increasingly took on administrative tasks. Joost: ‘I noticed that I wasn’t quite so bad in such things as I’d thought. I find it interesting and I feel I could make myself useful as an administrator.’ With the vacancy at the University of Groningen, the attraction was mutual: Joost tested the waters in Groningen and Groningen asked Joost to apply for the position.

The start of ARCNL

How exactly did things start at ARCNL? ARCNL was the idea of Bart Noordam, a former director of AMOLF who later became Dean of the Science Faculty at the University of Amsterdam. He knew all parties well and had for some time been nursing the idea of an institute situated between industry and the academic world. Noordam, vice president research at ASML (innovative leader in the semiconductor industry) in 2013, asked four academic parties to come up with a plan: Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Aken and Amsterdam. All of them wrote proposals within a few weeks. Albert Polman (AMOLF) lead the initiative from Amsterdam together with colleagues from AMOLF, University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam. ARCNL would do curiosity-driven physics research into phenomena that are vitally important for future semiconductor technology. Nanolithography with which the smallest details in computer memory chips can be completely reduced to the nanoscale. This concerns the physics of generating extreme ultraviolet light, advanced laser physics and new methods for metrology and microscopy. And about the behaviour of thin layers, surfaces and interfaces of materials under the unusual conditions in lithography machines. ASML chose Amsterdam and invested half of the basic costs.

In temporary buildings

Joost: ‘They asked me if I wanted to set up such an institute. ASML contributed half of the costs, and NWO and the universities the other half. In addition to this, we received a starting grant from the City of Amsterdam and the Province of North Holland. We began as a department of AMOLF with the understanding that we would detach ourselves once we had become big enough. In September 2015, Huib Bakker (director AMOLF, ed.) and I cut the umbilical cord. We started in temporary buildings on the Amsterdam Science Park and used the Nikhef PiMu building as a lab. The original proposal already contained a research programme that was embraced by ASML. I subsequently contacted the group leaders who had indicated that they wanted to lead the research if ARCNL got off the ground. Most of them took this brave step. During the first week of our existence, we held a meeting straight away in which we all introduced our plans to ASML. In October, we threw a large party in the still empty offices. The growth of the institute only really got underway when our laboratory in the PiMu building became available and later when we moved to a new building.’

The 2018 crisis

‘ARCNL’s start was anything but easy’, says Joost, looking back. He explains that it is standard practice in science that after a research proposal has been awarded funding, there is very little attention anymore for how the researcher carries out the research. During the project, the researcher would find out whether something works, adjust the research and explore new routes. That was not how things should work according to ASML, and tensions arose. Joost: ‘We had to invent the collaboration from both sides.’ In 2018, a substantial crisis arose that came down to a difference in culture and differing expectations: a researcher doing fundamental long-term research thinks in a period of 10 to 20 years, but ASML contributes four million euros per year and wants solutions within several months. Part of ARCNL’s research did not match the plans of ASML in the slightest and so ARCNL had to stop two lines of research. Joost: ‘That was painful because those lines formed a successful part of the institute, and so in terms of content, we were proud of them right till the end. We wound down the lines with respect for colleagues’ contracts, but everybody had to let go of something in this trajectory, myself included. We agreed that this should never happen again. I learned that I had to make even better agreements still.’

That seems interesting to us

Joost continues: ‘In ASML’s culture, people do not usually applaud but look at what can be further improved. They do that very consistently within their organisation and also with us. The question was: do we actually want to continue, and if so, how? We needed an approach where the research remains feasible and everybody has realistic expectations. One of the measures that resulted from these difficult discussions was that from that moment onwards, we would formulate a research plan each year. Subsequently, intensive consultations about that would take place between our research groups and ASML throughout the year. We have done that since, and this approach works well. An annual plan meeting typically proceeds like this: ARCNL proposes something and we ask ASML what they think. Often ASML says “that seems interesting to us”, and in some cases “now, to be honest, the interest in this subject is changing, so if you could approach it in this or that manner, then it would fit”. In such instances, we usually adjust the plans in such a way that they remain our plans but ASML can accept them too. Next, we have a whole year to further discuss the plans. We also have the agreement that once a PhD subject has been chosen it may longer be changed. If ASML inspires us to head in a certain direction with the research – during PhD research, you usually explore many different directions anyhow – then we are open to that as long as it fits within the contours of the original idea.”

The experts

‘We emerged from that crisis well’, says Joost. ASML takes the long-term character of PhD research into account, and ARCNL continues to take onboard the signals from ASML throughout the year. Sometimes ASML decides to shift the focus for commercial or technical reasons. Joost: ‘You can usually feel such changes coming. And, occasionally, there are surprises. We can influence some of the changes within ASML, and we consider that to be our success. Our role is to do those things that can eventually be of interest to the ASML R&D, which has grown at an amazing rate. ARCNL does entirely fundamental research and ASML is interested in what is not there yet. With their technology, they operate at the limits of knowledge. ASML also commissions a lot of research from other groups outside of ARCNL. Initially, people were scared of competition, but that has not proven to be the case. ASML benefits from the fact that we have developed a long-term vision for certain themes, have the equipment for these and have acquired a lot of local knowledge. We have gradually become less dependent on input from ASML, and nowadays, we are the experts they turn to when they have questions. You need more than five years to achieve such a position.’ Could the relationship now be described as a trickling stream? Joost laughs: ‘I’d rather describe it as rapidly flowing water but without a waterfall that could prove fatal. We have a great, quick collaboration with ASML as well as VU Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam. This requires you to remain alert and to adjust suboptimal issues along the way. We have already been in that mode for some time.’ The ARCNL PhDs and postdocs are employed by NWO-I or one of the universities, the PhD defences take place at the universities and nearly all staff members are employed by VU Amsterdam or the University of Amsterdam and, currently, the University of Groningen too. Joost: ‘I am officially an employee of NWO-I but as a professor, and also attached to the University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam so that nobody could say “Frenken only belongs to that one organisation”.’

Cruising altitude

In the news item about Joost’s departure, ARCNL wrote that the institute has now reached the following phase. Which phase is that? Joost: ‘Several elements characterise that phase. After the take-off flight of the initial years, with a lot of turbulence, we presently find ourselves at cruising altitude, with 100 employees, a balanced research programme and a more or less fixed annual production of articles and patent ideas. The question from 2018, “so do we even want to continue”, is no longer posed by anybody. We successfully realise our commission to do things that can eventually be of interest to the R&D of ASML. Apart from the PhD defences and publications over the past 8.5 years, the institute has yielded about 150 ideas that qualify as a pre-patent (the basic idea that can lead to a patent, the exclusive ownership rights to the discovery of a technical product or a process). ASML has converted about 40 of those into a patent application. Every one to two ARCNL publications, on average, results in one discovery. Therefore, unlike the other NWO Institutes, for us everything also revolves around these patentable ideas. As far as I’m concerned, the next phase is gaining recognition from the outside world that the concept of ARCNL works. The institute has the right size and the research programme inspires enthusiasm. The Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) that assesses our research is no longer guiding us through the growth phase, but considers us to be a mature institute. Each year, ASML writes a report about the meaning of the ARCNL research for their own research. The reactions of both the SAC and ASML are now full of praise for our work.’

Wisdom and family feeling

Achieving the next phase meant that ARCNL could begin to devote attention to matters such as reigning in the duration of the PhD trajectory and working on awareness of scientific integrity and diversity. At present, 28% of the PhDs and postdocs are women and the scientific staff includes three women. ARCNL scores high for employee satisfaction. In the announcement of his departure, Joost also said that he would take wisdom and family feeling with him to Groningen: ‘These are both key to our success. The ability to manoeuvre, instead of simply ploughing through everything with a narrow-minded view of things, and a considerable dose of empathy have made ARCNL what it is now. Wisdom is looking at a complex situation with a certain peace of mind, respecting that different parties have different motives and being willing to give each other space. The interests of ASML are different from those of universities and NWO. Today, those interests are well-represented and respected at all levels. The only way to get people on board is when everybody understands that it is a good idea and fun to work on. ARCNL is a club with a strong sense of belonging. We celebrate each other’s successes, and there is positive envy in the case of a publication or prize, but no enmity. It’s a family feeling that I copied from our next-door neighbour AMOLF. During the establishment of ARCNL, I considered which elements of the AMOLF family I wanted to develop in our club. So, just like at our much-valued neighbours, there’s a lot of attention for our employees, with a personal chat for the newcomers and those leaving. Now, there is particular attention for our Ukrainian and Russian colleagues. During the corona crisis, we tried to provide a safety net. We share news about the progress of the work once every two weeks during a session that always has about six posters and during a colloquium in the centrally located atrium. Everybody joins these.’

No loss of autonomy

Which aspect of this success story are you proudest of Joost? ‘That we are here and in this manner. When I leave, everything will continue, including the aspects of thinking for yourself and innovation. That has become embedded in the culture. I’m proud of the composition of our staff: half of the research groups are led by young tenure trackers, alongside others who have already won their spurs. We definitely benefit from the fact that most group leaders are young. That’s because it takes a considerable effort to learn to adjust to this special situation in which, on the one hand, you’re doing fundamental research that fits well within universities while, on the other hand, you need to have a genuine willingness to listen to what industry needs. You should not try to tell ASML how they should be doing things. Young researchers develop a second nature for such collaboration, which they do not experience as a loss of autonomy. ARCNL focuses on developing home-grown researchers who learn to fully master this balancing act. New group leaders receive a very thorough introductory programme at ASML in which they get to know the organisation well. They assess the broad range of possibilities and then decide what fits them best. I take pride in the fact that all of our staff members are successful in their interaction with ASML. In principle, we have all undergone this learning trajectory, one that you do not as a rule encounter at university.’

More connection with industry

And has the time for something completely different in Groningen arrived now? Joost already knew Groningen well from previous collaborations. The science faculty is diverse, large and has almost 8000 students. Which dossiers are waiting there for him? Joost: ‘There is pressure on the physical capacity and the number of people who need to provide that education. So everyone’s hoping, of course, that I’ll immediately come up with some smart solutions for this. One of my objectives is to establish even more connections, both within the faculty and with the outside world.’ Did the recent admission of the University of Groningen to the ARCNL consortium as an Associate Partner influence your choice for Groningen? Joost: ‘That was a splendid coincidence. But it played no role in my choice of Groningen. The representation from the University of Groningen on the board of ARCNL runs via the director of the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials. Thanks to that intermediate route and colleagues in Groningen who do ARCNL research, I will continue to follow the collaboration from a distance with interest. In Groningen, I’ll also keep an eye out for more research from Groningen that could be interesting from an ARCNL perspective. The connection with industry could possibly be expanded a bit more.’

A farewell and a party

ARCNL will bid farewell to its first director in September 2022. Joost: ‘We’re organising a big party because that’s now possible again after corona. And that happens to coincide with my departure.’


About NWO Institute ARCNL

ARCNL is a public-private partnership established in 2014 by the Dutch Research Council, the University of Amsterdam, VU Amsterdam and semiconductor equipment manufacturer ASML. In 2022, the University of Groningen joined as an Associate Partner. The institute is located at Amsterdam Science Park. For more information, see

Who is Joost Frenken?

Besides his directorship of ARCNL, Joost Frenken is Professor of Physics at both the University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam. His scientific expertise lies in structure at the atomic scale, diffusion, chemical reactions, phase transitions and friction phenomena on surfaces and interfaces, which he investigates with advanced instruments developed under his supervision. Joost’s achievements have been rewarded with various research prizes and membership of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the co-founder of two companies: Leiden Probe Microscopy BV and Applied Nanolayers BV. Joost is married and has two children. He lives in Leiden. In his spare time, he enjoys running (long distances). Since the start of the corona crisis, he has made the journey from Leiden to Amsterdam by bike. ‘Unfortunately, Groningen is too far away for that. My family will remain in Leiden and, meanwhile, I’ve found a nice pied-à-terre in Groningen.’

Quotes about Joost Frenken

Oscar Versolato, group leader ARCNL, who began at the same time as Joost, in 2014:
I’m incredibly impressed by how Joost, with his overflowing agenda, could always make time available to properly support me as a young (and these days not so young) group leader. If I turned to him with a question or request for feedback on a research proposal [or whatever else it was] then I always quickly received highly detailed (and very extensive [!]) and incredibly useful input, and I am most grateful for that. It has had a fantastic influence on my career.

Marjan Fretz, institute manager of ARCNL:
What made working with Joost so pleasant was the fact that we complemented each other so well. We always agreed about the most important issues. And in retrospect, that is quite something. Joost’s optimism and slight impatience have ensured that ARCNL is now a stable institute and that he can depart for Groningen. However, as the University of Groningen is an Associate Partner, he will fortunately continue to be involved with ARCNL.

Marcel Levi, president NWO Executive Board:
We are all going to really miss Joost. That’s due to his fantastic leadership of ARCNL and his consistently well-considered contributions to the NWO-I directors’ meeting, in which he always managed to strike a good balance between the needs of his own institute and the group interests. And, last but not least, due to his quiet, consistent and always positive disposition.

Text: Anita van Stel
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, June 2022
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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