Simula Research Laboratory
Just over 20 years ago, Simula began building a new research organization with the aim of allowing scientists to focus on their work, free from many of the pressures common in academic settings.
Simula is now an organization of over 200 people doing high-quality work within information and communication technology. Simula’s mission is to beneﬁt society by solving important problems in science, educating the next generation, and developing profitable tech enterprises.
Q&A with Aslak Tveito
Milestones & Highlights
Q&A with Professor Aslak Tveito
Managing Director (CEO) of Simula since 2002.
"My ambition has always been to create a place where people can think."
How did Simula get started?
"It might be surprising to hear, but Simula was not started by scientists, it was actually started by politicians. It all began with Norway building a new airport for the Oslo region and leaving behind an airport located in a beautiful place in Fornebu. There were many political discussions about what the old airport should be used for. One suggestion was to try to create a technology hub, and parliament decided that it was reasonable to have a research lab be part of that technology hub. They left the implementation of that tech hub to the Research Council of Norway who, in 2000, held a competition for university research groups that were within the information and communication technology ﬁeld. They ultimately chose three groups, which came together to form Simula. Simula was officially established as a company in 2002."
And where did the name “Simula” come from? What does it mean?
"In the late 1960’s, Norwegian scientists Kristen Nygaard and Ole-Johan Dahl developed “Simula,” the first object-oriented programming language. They received the A.M. Turing Award in 2001 and the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in 2002 for their work. It felt like an obvious choice to honor that achievement, and the bonus is that “Simula” is easy to pronounce in any language."
When you think back on the early days at Simula, did you think it would grow so much? It began as one company with just three research areas [communication systems, software engineering, and scientific computing] and has grown to have five research areas and has become a group of 6 companies with major collaborative partnerships and research centers.
In the very beginning, it felt like it was all about survival. We needed the Research Council to see Simula as something useful that they should continue funding. And, in order to be useful, I felt that we had to try to grow and expand. So Simula Research Laboratory was soon followed by Simula Innovation, Kalkulo—which was sold in 2019— and Simula School of Research and Innovation. After that came Simula UiB (a collaboration with the University of Bergen), Simula Metropolitan (a collaboration with Oslo Metropolitan University), and Simula Consulting. We’ve also formed other major collaborations with partners in Norway and abroad, for instance at the University of California, San Diego, the Technical University of Berlin, and The National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria) in France.
At Simula we are open to new possibilities - when we see a possibility we go after it. We're very opportunistic.Prof. Aslak Tveito, CEO of Simula
That seems like a lot of growth in just 20 years.
Yes, we have grown, but we’ve tried our best to do it in a systematic way where the Simula culture isn’t lost. We have been thoughtful in establishing fruitful collaborations with other institutions, both in Norway and abroad. We’ve been growing at an average of about 10% per year, which is considerable growth over time but feels pretty manageable from one year to the next.
What are some of the features that you think have allowed Simula to grow so much and to continue receiving government funding?
Since the beginning it has been clear that we should continue to be very active in basic research and in higher level education, and we have, but we’ve also made a point to always be looking for emerging areas of national and international need. So, for example, when IT security became a big issue of national importance about 10 years ago, we started focusing on that. The same thing happened with artiﬁcial intelligence and machine learning. At Simula we are open to new possibilities—when we see a possibility we go after it. We’re very opportunistic and, because we’re still small, we can move quickly.
What about Simula makes it an organization that’s able to take on all of these new opportunities and create new things?
In Norway, you typically have either traditional universities or research institutes that are often very commercial and close to industry. Simula is something in between. Because of that, we have been given a huge amount of freedom. We are not bound to a certain system that everyone has to adhere to. If we want to try to do something different, we do something different. Maybe we’ve also been given a lot of freedom because our owners trust that we will make good use of it.
"As a mentor I want to give people the space to grow, to take responsibility for their work, and to become more independent."Prof. Aslak Tveito, CEO of Simula
What’s the work environment like at Simula, and how do you try to contribute to that environment as a mentor?
Today we have close to 200 employees. I believe over half of the people working at Simula are not Norwegian and about 40 different countries are represented. You’ll walk around and hear English, German, French, Mandarin—we’re quite international. Even with so many more people than we had 20 years ago, Simula has continued to be a place where people work together and are kind to each other. As a mentor I want to give people the space to grow, to take responsibility for their work, and to become independent. Most of the work people create is very good, and different from what I might have come up with, because if they’ve been working hard on a problem they understand it better than I do. I generally enjoy leaving people alone to work on their projects, and do not interfere unless I see something that may challenge our values.
The way you describe your approach to mentorship reminds me of a quote I’ve come across at Simula: “By thinking constantly about it.” Can you tell me a little about that?
Newton, when he was asked how he came up with the law of gravitation said, “By thinking constantly about it.” It’s a quote I come back to all of the time because I think it is at the very core of how science progresses, and that it’s something we at Simula have always tried to do, and sometimes still struggle to do. If you visit almost any research group in the world, you will ﬁnd a lot of stressed out researchers with deadlines for grants and papers, but also teaching and other obligations. And my question is always, “when do these people think?” My ambition has always been to create a place where people can think. I don't think you can stress thinking or think on overdrive. You need to have peace.
You’re celebrating Simula’s 20th anniversary and reﬂecting back on the last two decades, but I’m sure you’re also thinking a lot about Simula’s future. How do you think Simula will continue to grow?
I think one of Simula’s biggest opportunities for growth is by collaborating with Norwegian universities as well as universities abroad. We’ll continue to develop the collaborations that already exist and also form new ones. Another important area for growth is with companies—I think that Simula will be co-owner of many more companies in the future.
Simula began twenty years ago, as the culmination of three research groups in the University of Oslo’s computer science department: Communication Systems, Software Engineering, and Scientific Computing.
Research at Simula has maintained its focus on these three research areas and added two more: Machine Learning and Cryptography. The research in these fields is conducted at Simula Research Laboratory, SimulaMet, and Simula UiB.
SIMULA RESEARCH LABORATORY (SRL)
SRL—the ﬁrst of Simula’s companies—was established in 2001. The majority of Simula’s research group activities are organized under SRL, including Scientiﬁc Computing and Software Engineering.
Scientific Computing at Simula is focused on developing mathematical models, software tools, and computer simulations to build fundamental knowledge in a variety of research ﬁelds. This knowledge is used to address obstacles faced by society, including human health challenges such as heart disease and neurodegeneration. High-performance computing allows researchers to execute accurate and detailed simulations at high speed. There are three departments within Scientiﬁc Computing: High-Performance Computing (HPC), Computational Physiology (ComPhy), and Numerical Analysis and Scientiﬁc Computing (SCAN).
High-Performance Computing (HPC)
The HPC department at SRL makes large-scale computations for modeling and simulations possible. HPC research spans several topics, including methodologies of parallel programming, hardware compatible and / or inspired numerical strategies, and software tools for user-friendly deployment and optimization of scientiﬁc code, plus real-world applications from various branches of computational science. The national research infrastructure eX3 (Experimental
Infrastructure for Exploration and Exascale Computing), hosted by Simula, is the primary hardware testbed for the HPC department.
Computational Physiology (ComPhy)
Researchers in ComPhy are developing cutting-edge biological simulation tools. The group collaborates closely with both experimentalists and clinicians around the world to drive basic research and promote innovation.
Joakim Sundnes was one of the ﬁrst graduate students through Simula’s doors and, in 2002, became Simula’s ﬁrst PhD student to graduate. Fast forward to today and Joakim has supervised many of his own students.
"This work could help clinicians select better treatments for their patients."Joakim Sundnes,
Chief Research Scientist & Research Professor
As is the case with many Simula employees, Joakim has held a variety of positions, from PhD student to postdoctoral researcher to his current role as a research professor in Scientiﬁc Computing. Today, Joakim’s work is primarily in ComPhy, modeling heart physiology and, in particular, how the heart grows and adapts over time. “Most of the work in the ﬁeld focuses on just a snapshot of how the heart works, typically a single or a few heartbeats,” says Joakim. “We are trying to create models to predict how the heart evolves, particularly in response to heart disease.” For example, when a person survives a heart attack, Joakim and colleagues want to know how that experience could affect the function of that person’s heart in the future. “We ask, how will the heart adapt and change itself over time?”
One of the long-term goals of this work is to help clinicians make more accurate predictions about patient outcomes and then make decisions based on those predictions. “This work could help clinicians select better treatments for their patients,” says Joakim.
Joakim’s interest in this research began with the math itself. “Coming from an applied mathematics background, this was an interesting math problem to solve,” he says. But solving that problem
to the best of his and his colleagues’ abilities hinged on the successful collaboration between Scientiﬁc Computing and experts in physiology and cardiology. So what began as solving a challenging computational problem grew into a much more comprehensive approach to understanding and treating disease, and led to a long-standing relationship between Scientiﬁc Computing and scientists in unrelated ﬁelds.
Joakim has remained at Simula all of these years for a reason. “It’s a good place to do science, and that’s why I’ve stayed,” he says. He has seen the incredible growth of Simula—research-related and otherwise—and is looking forward to what’s next. One of his predictions for the future is that artiﬁcial intelligence will play an even greater role at Simula and make a lot of the research, including his own work in computational physiology, much more powerful.
Numerical Analysis and Scientiﬁc Computing (SCAN)
SCAN aims to develop mathematical methods and scientiﬁc tools to reach a new understanding of complex physical processes.
Marie Rognes, a research professor in SCAN, comes from an applied mathematics background like Joakim. Marie started at Simula in 2009, creating better software for solving partial differential equations. She went on maternity leave in 2013 and, while sitting on her sofa one afternoon, completely exhausted, noticed a ﬂashy headline on the newspaper in front of her: “Sleep Clears Brain of Toxic Waste.” Although it felt a bit like clickbait, she was intrigued. “I started digging and I found medical papers supporting the headline and I thought, ‘this is really interesting—this is something we could try to model.’ So when I returned to Simula after maternity leave I started delving into this idea.”
"It's also important, and very fun, to tell the general public about what you're working on."Marie E. Rognes,
Chief Research Scientist & Research Professor
Marie became fascinated with the possibility of simulating the connection between brain fluid mechanics, neurodegenerative disease, and sleep. Marie was part of Simula’s Centre of Excellence in Biomedical Computing and, at the time, they had some research focused on simulating ﬂuid mechanics, so the methods and techniques were not completely foreign to her, but the research that had been done mostly focused on rare disorders related to the spinal cord.
In line with Simula’s mission, Marie also sees the importance of communicating the work she does, both to other researchers and to the general public. “To advance the science, I think it's important to tell other researchers what you have found,” she says. “I mean, we're working on something that's quite interdisciplinary. And of course, it’s also important, and very fun, to tell the general public about what you’re working on.”
Marie says she sees Simula researchers as people who are interested in doing not only good science, but ambitious, groundbreaking science that will advance the state of knowledge. The potential for groundbreaking scientiﬁc work is a major part of what has kept Marie at Simula for 12 years, but the other part is the positive work environment. “I think we have a very open and inclusive work environment at Simula,” she says. “And I think a lot of that has to do with our open-door policy where people stop by and discuss things with each other.”
Software Engineering at Simula focuses on improving the quality of software—its stability, testability, efficiency, and security. Within Software Engineering is the Department of Validation Intelligence for Autonomous Software Systems (VIAS), the Department of Data-Driven Software Engineering (dataSED), and the Department of Engineering Complex Software Systems (ComplexSE).
Validation Intelligence for Autonomous Software Systems (VIAS) Simula’s VIAS department tackles the challenges presented by autonomous software systems like self-driving cars and industrial robots. These systems are important tools for addressing societal challenges—environmental sustainability, for example—and are expected to plan, schedule, and execute complex tasks and safely react to unexpected hazards. VIAS plays a crucial role in validating the robustness, reliability, safety, and security of these systems.
Data-Driven Software Engineering (dataSED)
Research activities in dataSED build on the wealth of data produced during software development and support software engineers with the analysis, evolution, and operation of software-intensive systems. The department addresses four main areas of software engineering: cybersecurity, software resilience, intelligent analytics, and recommendation systems.
"Having people from all over the world working together makes the research better and makes everyone more accommodating and open."Shaukat Ali,
Chief Research Scientist & Research Professor
Engineering Complex Software Systems (ComplexSE) ComplexSE’s goal is to address the growing complexity of software systems today, which are often heterogeneous, open, networked and “smart”—composed of agents, sensors, actuators, information networks, and more. ComplexSE is dedicated to creating new software engineering paradigms—for instance, quantum software engineering—to more efﬁciently design, develop, test, and maintain novel software systems.
Research professor Shaukat Ali is head of the ComplexSE department, where he leads both basic and applied research. With basic research, scientists often play the long game and begin working on something that they think could greatly impact a variety of ﬁelds many years down the line. “Right now, one breakthrough research idea is creating quantum software for different applications,” says Shaukat. “For example, if you had to make a new vaccine or a new drug, quantum software holds the potential to not only exponentially speed up their discovery, but provide much more accurate analysis than current computational tools.”
Shaukat says working at Simula has allowed him the space and support to propose research that’s the ﬁrst of its kind, like is the case with quantum software engineering. “One day, I was talking with my colleague, research professor Tao Yue, and we just thought, let's try something different than what we typically work on,” he says. “And we came up with this quantum software testing idea.” Fortunately, Tao and Shaukat received the funding they needed to hit the ground running on that basic research project.
When it comes to applied research, one of ComplexSE’s projects is with the Cancer Registry of Norway. The Cancer Registry maintains cancer patient data that can be used, for example, to help clinicians make decisions about a patient’s treatment. Right now, a major hurdle is processing that data efﬁciently—it can take a lot of time, and time is not something a patient always has. “We are working on improving their system more quickly,” says Shaukat. “And we’re using a variety of artiﬁcial intelligence techniques to ensure the quality of the system.” Another applied research project is with Oslo’s health services department (Oslo kommune Helseetaten), and Shaukat and other researchers in ComplexSE are working on optimizing sensor-based systems for things like at-home health monitoring and medication dispensing machines.
Shaukat grew up in Pakistan and studied in the UK and Canada before moving to Norway fourteen years ago, when his PhD advisor relocated to Simula. After ﬁnishing his PhD, Shaukat stayed at Simula as a postdoc and then as a research scientist. Just over two years ago, he became the head of ComplexSE. “Simula is very multinational. And yes, if you run a department with people of 10 different nationalities with 10 different cultures, it can get challenging, but it’s much more fun. Having people from all over the world working together makes the research better and makes everyone more accommodating and open.”
"It has been remarkable to experience the level of enthusiasm about the Inria collaboration.Are Magnus Bruaset,
Professor and Research Director
In February 2021, researchers from Simula’s VIAS and Complex SE departments joined forces with researchers from France’s National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology (Inria) to create the Resilient Software Science (RESIST) team. The RESIST team is led by Mathieu Acher at the University of Rennes and Arnaud Gotlieb from Simula, and addresses the following challenges: observation data for assessing resilience under varying conditions, digital twins for continuous improvement of resilient autonomous/ smart systems, and resilient autonomous systems in the digital and physical world. The RESIST team is just one example of the growing collaborations between Simula and Inria, many of which are moving into research areas beyond Software Engineering.
“We highly appreciate the close collaboration with Inria,” says Are Magnus Bruaset, Director of Research at SRL, who also notes that Inria is one of the strongest research institutions in ICT, internationally. “While this collaboration started in the Software Engineering area, it has spread quickly to other research areas, and we are currently partners in several projects funded by the EU,” he says. “It has been remarkable to experience the level of enthusiasm about the Inria collaboration all the way through the two organizations, from the individual researchers to the top management.”
Simula Metropolitan Center for Digital Engineering (SimulaMet) is a research unit jointly owned by Simula Research Laboratory and Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet). The collaboration was driven by Simula and OsloMet’s common interest in increasing the amount of high-quality research being done in the ICT ﬁeld in Norway.
Within SimulaMet, Communication Systems is aimed at improving the robustness and security of digital infrastructures, and Machine Learning is focused on developing novel methodologies and algorithmic solutions to address problems that society faces, which range from cancer to infertility to climate change. Some of the work at SimulaMet is also focused in Software Engineering, including IT Management.
"When I started at Simula I found it so different from what I was used to. It was refreshing.Marianne Sundet,
Deputy Director of SimulaMet
Marianne Sundet, the Deputy Director of SimulaMet, has been at Simula since 2007, when she was brought on as a management advisor. She then worked with Simula School of Research and Innovation and Simula Innovation, including Simula Garage, before starting her current position. “When I started at Simula I found it so different from what I was used to,” she says. “It was refreshing. It was not a traditional university, even though they did things that reminded me of a university, but it wasn’t a commercial-driven company either. It was something in between.”
Marianne has stayed at Simula for well over a decade for a variety of reasons, but she says the biggest one is the people. “With all of the Simula companies you will ﬁnd that you get to meet some really highly educated, interesting people that do a lot of really interesting work,” she says.
"It's been the coolest job on the planet. It's been absolutely fantastic."Olav Lysne,
Professor and Director of SimulaMet
Olav Lysne, the Director of SimulaMet, could not agree more. “I was extremely lucky with the people that I was able to bring to SimulaMet from Simula. They are extraordinarily talented and hard working,” he says. “It's been the coolest job on the planet. It's been absolutely fantastic.”
Olav believes the work that SimulaMet produces is incredibly important from a societal perspective. “Machine learning and artiﬁcial intelligence applied to human health,” he says, “that has huge potential that I think everybody's aware of.”