Value for money approach pays off
With SFI preparing this week to channel more millions towards high-end RD projects across the nation’s third-level institutions, have previous investments really lived up to expectations, asks JJ WORRALL
THE ANNUAL figures usually catch the eye – €44 million in 2011, €25 million the year before – and in a few weeks, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) once again announces just how much money will be granted under its Principal Investigator (PI) programme.
Supporting research and development in various forms of software, hardware, telecommunications, biotechnology and sustainable energy, PI grants range from €100,000 to €500,000 per year for three- to five-year projects. Far from being cocooned within academia though, they attract the support of global IT leaders such as IBM, Microsoft, EMC, Disney, Intel and Cisco as well as local names like Storyful and Havok.
“In the current climate it’s important that you can demonstrate that the research has a commercial element,” admits UCD’s Prof Pádraig Cunningham who gained a PI programme grant of more than €450,000 in 2006 for a three-year data-mining project.
Like others who have received SFI funding in recent years, he tells how there’s been “a certain shift” in SFI’s attitude towards research funding of late, shifting from “basic research” towards “industry-focused research”. This “value for money” approach reflects the type of pressure most government bodies face these days, though it does beg the question whether the millions spent previously in the last decade truly fulfilled their potential?
The Irish Times spoke to three people whose PI projects have come to the end of their life cycle to find out.
PROJECT TITLE: Employing Artificial Intelligence to Make Constraint Programming Easier to Use for Decision Making
Details: With more than €3 million in SFI funding, this four-year project was the investment which really kick-started the acclaimed Cork Constraint Computation Centre (or 4C as it’s also known), in UCC. Professors Barry O’Sullivan and Eugene Freuder intended for the funds to be focused on “making constraint programming easier to use by using artificial intelligence techniques”.
Freuder once said 4C’s work can be described as helping computers to make “better decisions. Using artificial intelligence O’Sullivan and Freuder aimed to automate this process by “teaching” computers how to solve various problems.
While there were no initial commercial partners involved, their work over the four years included contributions from Microsoft, Xerox, BT and Intel. While a $100,000 Google Research Award was bestowed upon O’Sullivan and Frueder’s team to help the development of an advanced event scheduler.
Value for money? The PI program grant resulted directly in what O’Sullivan believes was “the highest rate of technology transfer of any similar projects”. Two start-up companies – Keelvar, which creates optimised web-based market systems for financial traders, and location analytics business ThinkSmart – grew from the work done under O’Sullivan and Freuder’s watch. In addition, about 50 4C staff had their work funded or co-funded by the grant.
Indeed, O’Sullivan and his 4C colleagues have also helped bring commercial investment towards the Rebel County. “We’ve helped the IDA bring companies to Ireland like United Technologies and Quest Software,” says O’Sullivan.