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Professor Mikko Möttönen wins Väisälä prize

The Väisälä Prize is awarded by the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters to a young researcher for achievements in the field of mathematics and science. It is the 21st time that the prize has been awarded, and this year there are two winners
Group leader professor Mikko Möttönen
Photo: Niki Strbian.

Professor Mikko Möttönen received his doctorate in 2005 at the Department of Applied Physics of the Helsinki University of Technology – now Aalto University.

When asked about how he first got interested in the field, Möttönen said, ‘Growing up, I got my appreciation for knowledge and research at home. When I was choosing what to study at university, the program in Applied Physics and Mathematics seemed challenging and well respected, which tipped the scale in favour of physics. My first course in quantum mechanics was incredibly interesting, and my fellow students and I saw quantum as a magnificent field. This led me to choose it as the topic of my summer jobs and Master's thesis. When I was young, I had a need to show my skills and potential. This got me to study hard.’

After defending his doctoral dissertation, Möttönen went to the University of California, Berkeley to do postdoctoral research. His research career continued as a postdoctoral researcher at the Helsinki University of Technology and at the University of New South Wales in Australia. In 2007 Möttönen started to work as the head of a research group at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in Computational Nanoscience. In 2019, Mikko Möttönen was appointed to a professorship in Quantum Technology, shared by Aalto University and VTT.

Möttönen is one of the world's leading researchers in quantum information. He has accomplished milestones in both theoretical and experimental research of quantum physics. ‘When I returned to Finland from the United States, my friends were doing experimental research, and it felt like something new and attractive again’, Möttönen explains.

His first publications involve the dynamics of Bose-Einstein condensates and the general foundations of quantum computing. Since then, his research expanded to areas including superconducting quantum circuits and the properties of open quantum systems. He is currently studying quantum technology, especially superconducting electric circuits which can be made to operate quantum mechanically.

‘Quantum technology is a field that is growing rapidly, which means that getting results fast is important’, Möttönen says.

Möttönen's research combines strong theoretical and computational skills and knowledge, with operating and measuring highly complex experimental quantum systems. He has been an author of 120 research articles, with an exceptionally high number of them being published in leading scientific journals.

‘The most recent points of success in my career have been obtaining a professorship in the spring of 2019, and an experimental paper of the journal Nature in October 2020, being mostly the work of my research group’, Möttönen observes.

Breakthroughs in research have enabled the development of potential commercial applications that use quantum computing. Möttönen is one of the four Founders of IQM Finland Oy, which builds quantum computers. He is also the Chief Scientist of the company. The company develops commercial quantum computers in Otaniemi in Espoo with the help of about € 70 million in funding. Research funding is nevertheless still a concern of his.

‘Funding for my university group seems to be uncertain from time to time. It is not enough just to achieve outstanding results. Funding applications can still be rejected. Next year is secured, but if applications do not start getting accepted now, doing research will be difficult.’

‘Many things in my career could have gone differently. For example, if I had not gone into experimental work, my research profile would be completely different now. For example, the spinout company IQM would never have arisen and VTT had not succeeded in getting a quantum computer at least not in this form’, Möttönen ponders.

Further proof of Möttönen's exceptional success as a researcher includes project funding from the European Research Council (ERC) that he was granted four times from 2011 to 2021, as well as other grants from the Academy of Finland and the European Commission. Möttönen has had versatile success in teaching and guidance, and in raising awareness about the results of research in activities such as writing columns for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat and visiting upper secondary schools.

‘This prize is an incredibly great honour. It is humbling and I am extremely grateful to everyone. Especially the QCD group, the QTF Centre of Excellence, my international collaborators, Aalto University, VTT, IQM, CSC, funders, decision-makers, the press, my family, and all of my supporters deserve great thanks’, Möttönen says.

In addition to Professor Möttönen, the prize was also granted to Assistant Professor Tuomas Orponen of the University of Jyväskylä.

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