Bringing the product from basic research to reward

Mon, Apr 9, 2012, 01:00

INNOVATION PROFILE: SCIENCE FOUNDATION IRELANDScience Foundation Ireland’s TIDA awards are helping new Irish research win the middle ground between initial breakthrough and commercialisation

SCIENCE Foundation Ireland (SFI) has provided hundreds of millions of euro in funding to create a base of world-class scientific research in this country. That investment is already paying dividends, with Ireland now being recognised as an international leader in a number of important research fields spanning areas such as life sciences, information technology and sustainable energy.

Much of this research has been commercialised as a result of assistance from state development bodies including Enterprise Ireland and InterTradeIreland, as well as private sector partners. However, a gap between the early-stage basic research and the commercialisation phase was identified some years ago by the research community and SFI responded by establishing the Technology Innovation Development Awards (TIDA).

The aim of TIDA is to facilitate greater interaction between SFI-funded researchers and engineers developing new technologies and industrial partners. The aim of the programme is the generation of new applied technologies. Participants receive funding of up to €100,000 for 12 months.

The programme was initially aimed exclusively at researchers who had previously received Science Foundation Ireland funding, but has since been broadened to cover all Irish-based researchers who have a track record of attracting funding from any source.

“The message that we were getting from the research community was that it was great what SFI were doing for basic research and what Enterprise Ireland were doing for commercialisation, but there was a gap in the middle which might be called applied research,” says Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI’s director of enterprise and international affairs.

“Our aim is to help researchers who might want to investigate a finding further but but one that is still at the pre-commercial stage. The TIDA grant can help them demonstrate the technical feasibility of their finding and they can then go to Enterprise Ireland and make a commercial case for it.”

She points out that researchers in Ireland are constantly coming up with new findings which could have commercial application, and need support to test those findings further if they are to be able to commercialise them. “It might be a case of building a prototype of a product to show a potential investor such as a business angel that a concept can work,” she says. “We are also encouraging the research community to do other things like looking at convergent opportunities. For example, you could have someone doing research in physiotherapy collaborating with a computer science department to ‘gameify’ some treatments to make them easier for patients to do.”

The latest round of TIDA awards involved funding of €6.5 million for 58 different projects, all with significant opportunities for commercialisation of research and potential treatments in diverse areas such as new drug delivery system, new transistor devices, cornea repair, SMART needles, hay fever, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, biomass, 4G wireless communication, wastewater treatment and acoustic sensors to detect damage in pipes.

“There are loads of really exciting ideas out there and TIDA is helping to bring them to the next level,” says Freeman. “The great thing about the programme is that it’s relatively quick and low cost in comparison to other research funding programmes. It’s one thing that a lot of businesspeople will tell you – if you’re going to fail, fail quickly. TIDA funding helps the researcher test out the idea and establish within 12 months whether it has a commercial future or not.”

Among the latest batch of projects funded under the programme is a potentially revolutionary improvement to cystic fibrosis (CF) treatment being research by Dr Robert Ryan in UCC. CF patient hospitalisations have been on the rise in recent years and one reason is the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistant bacterial infections.

The TIDA funded feasibility study by Dr Ryan will look at how interference with a bacterial signalling factor can improve the efficacy of existing drugs in the treatment of bacterial infections. Deployment of such a successful strategy would lead to significantly improved treatment of bacterial infection associated with CF without the risk of antibiotic resistance development. This, in turn, will lead to a considerable reduction in the time spent in hospital and care cost.

Another project with great pottential is a “smart” needle, developed by Dr Eric Moore of the Tyndall National Institute in Cork. The smart needle aims to improve the safety of procedures relating to ultrasound-guided peripheral nerve block (USgPNB) technique, used in situations where a doctors want to anaesthetise particular nerves before a patient undergoes surgery or to treat acute or chronic pain.

The approach being developed provides the clinician with data to identify the tissue type at the needle tip, facilitating more sensitive identification of one or more target nerves and enabling precise deposition of an anaesthetic agent around the nerve.

Dr Willie Donnelly of WIT is engaged in the development of a prototype apparatus for the monitoring and management of the latest generation of mobile phone network technologies known as femtocells. These are small cellular base stations which are being deployed by network operators such as Vodafone as a cost-effective solution for improving coverage and capacity in the home. The addition of large numbers of these mini-base stations to networks will dramatically increase monitoring requirements and Donnelly’s team has developed a method which can do this in a cost-efficient manner for the network operators.

A promising new technology for the restoration of sight to people who suffer from blindness as a result of cornea disorders is being investigated by a multi-disciplinary team led by Prof Fergal OBrien of (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) RCSI. There is already a procedure known as limbal stem- cell transplantation, which has shown promise in restoring patient sight in such cases.

However, there are major limitations to the use of the amniotic membrane – which is the gold standard carrier of cells for transplantation. Prof O’Brien’s team is seeking to develop a new collagen-based scaffold as a cell carrier for use in repairing the cornea.

But funding and assistance with research is not all that TIDA offers. “There is a kind of sidebar area to it as well,” says Freeman. “We also run a kind of entrepreneurship training programme for participants in association with the Ryan Academy in UCD.

“We take 12 to 15 postdocs at a time for each eight-week course, where they learn more about business. The course ends with a Dragon’s Den-style competition, and last year we sent the two winners over to Silicon Valley for a week. They came back full of enthusiasm about starting their own business. This is another part of what TIDA is all about – we are creating a new cohort of scientist-entrepreneurs.”