From horses to robots – the many strands of Stem

Looking at Stem innovators in Ireland and highlighting some of the most exciting work


Innovation is the lifeblood of science, but it doesn’t come cheap. Solid research and development costs money, but the economic and social returns on the investment more than make up for it.

Brian Henderson, PhD student in Biological Sciences at DIT

“I’m a participant in the New Frontiers programme for entrepreneurs, an Enterprise Ireland initiative run by DIT Hothouse. I created my start-up Baon Diagnostics, which centres around the development of a medical device that efficiently diagnoses antibiotic resistant bacteria at the point of care in GP clinics.

“I did my undergraduate in biotechnology at DCU and then went on to a masters in biomedical diagnostics, also in DCU. We learned about point of care tests and how to build them from biology to engineering.

“I was interested in the idea that antibiotics are becoming less efficient over time and so I thought about how we could use them better. I then worked for a while in Ducree labs on centrifugal microfluidics, a process that means we need to take less blood from people in order to carry out tests, especially for sepsis.

“While at Ducree, I came across a prize fund for whoever could build a point of care test to determine if a patient needs antibiotics. I decided to build my own company after attending the iCubed start-up programme for DIT students. The aim is to turn scientists into businessmen. Now I’m getting out, talking to doctors and seeing where this product would fit in the market, where it is required and whether people will use it. I thought that if I build it, they will come, but that is not true, because you need to make sure what you create is a good fit for GP surgeries and hospitals.

“We are looking for that extra investment to bring us over the curb for (US) FDA approval. In the meantime, we are looking at hand swabs as a way of seeing whether cleaning measures are up to scratch. This is what is giving access to revenue streams at the moment.”

Dr Barbara Murphy, Head of Equine Science, UCD

“I grew up with a pony and was always interested in biology, so I studied equine science at the University of Limerick. After working in the industry and studying for a PhD in the University of Kentucky, I came back to Ireland in 2007 and was offered a position as a lecturer in equine science.

“My PhD investigated the influence of light on the circadian rhythms of the horse and how these could be disrupted by sickness or travel. I wanted to understand what specific qualities of light were influencing the body of mammals. We all evolved living outdoors and exposed to natural sunlight which has many important properties that we do not receive from artificial light. Horses, especially elite competition animals, can spend up to 23 hours in stables that are often poorly lit. My research looks at how we can improve health and performance by allowing horses to receive the optimum light wavelength, intensity and duration.

“This work has now given rise to the successful spin out Equilume, a company providing a mobile lighting solution for horses. The eureka moment was discovering that light is only needed to one eye to elicit the beneficial effect of sunlight. Now mares can stay outside at pasture wearing a mobile lighting device, and they’re happier and healthier and still reproductively active. My Equilume light mask saves the breeder 75 per cent of the normal cost of keeping mares under lights and allows them to be more fertile because they are moving and stress-free.

“The commercial potential extends to other species including cows and camels. And my work on the importance of correct lighting for an animal’s circadian system – improving performance, aiding recovery from illness and better overall health – can help with human health too.

Professor Brian Caulfield, Dean of Physiotherapy, UCD

“I qualified as a physiotherapist more than 20 years ago, did a master’s degree in data analysis in neurophysiology and then did clinical work in the US before coming back to UCD for a PhD. My doctoral work was rooted in motion capture lab work, where we used equipment and motion sensor technology to see why people get recurrent musculoskeletal injuries.

“I was focused on ankle strains, but there are constraints to doing this work in a lab: elite athletes don’t normally run in a lab, for a start; they perform on the field or the track. At the time, I knew some biomedical engineers and computer scientists who were working on wearable accelerometers to measure human movement – this is the technology at the heart of, for instance, FitBits.

“We started to collaborate with computer scientists and biotechnologists to see how it could be used for a better understanding and enhancement of human performance in sport. We are using this technology to develop new approaches for assessing older adults who could be at risk of falling either at home in the community, and we have already had some success. We’ve also looked at sensor technologies to see why some people appear to be more prone to recurrent musculoskeletal injuries, and used this data to provide real-time biofeedback to people undergoing rehabilitation exercises or strength and conditioning work in the gym.

“My work in this area has led me to become the UCD site director for Insight, the centre for data analytics which involves researchers from UCD, UCC, DCU and NUI Galway. One of the early sensor projects was with TRIL (the technology research for independent living centre) and another was the Clarity centre for sensor web technologies, an SFI-funded C-SET. Insight brought a lot of this research together. I’m working in data science not to leave physiotherapy behind but because it allows me to use my clinical and exercise science knowledge to work with data scientists, give them problems to solve and then try to interpret the solutions that they come up with.”

Panel: Innovation in brief

– Prof Jonathan Coleman is a researcher at the SFI-funded Amber centre. Last year, he published a paper on a completely new type of graphene/polymer composite that is the most sensitive electromechanical sensor ever made. This sensor can continuously measure blood pressure in a non-invasive manner and therefore could have many applications in medical devices and diagnostics. Negotiations are under way to license the technology to industry.

– Prof Louise Kenny is director of the SFI Infant research centre at UCC, which focuses on fetal and neonatal health. She has developed a diagnostic test for the early detection of pre-eclampsia in pregnancy and this has been licensed for development to a UCC spin-out company, Metabolomic Diagnostics. Pitches to investors helped to secure €1.6m in additional venture funding and they hope to bring the product, PrePsia blood test, to market in 2017.

– Scientists at SFI’s APC Microbiome Institute have produced some of the most important biological science of recent years. As well as determining that there are deep and intricate links between gut microbes and the human brain, they have confirmed that gut microbes play a role in heart health. They also demonstrated that we should regularly consume porridge to get the benefits of oat beta glucan for heart and gut health.

– Dr Steven Kerrigan of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is an SFI career development award holder. He has developed a new drug that prevents bacteria from sticking to the innermost side of blood vessels, thereby preventing sepsis which is the most expensive condition to treat in hospitals and which costs the global economy more than €18bn per year. The drug has been patented and Kerrigan hopes to conduct human clinical trials in the near future.

– Prof Stefano Sanvita is an investigator at Amber, the SFI-funded materials science centre based at Trinity College and he is leading an international collaboration that is exploring magnets. Using advanced computer simulations, the team has identified 22 new magnets in the past year. Magnets are key for everyday technologies from computers to cars, kitchen blenders and lawnmowers, but their components are expensive, which drives forward the need for new materials. The team are using computer simulations combined with powerful databases to predict the properties of 30,000 hypothetical new materials and then advising what will work best for particular applications. The most remarkable of the 22 new magnets is Co2MnTi which can work at a temperature of about 630 degrees Celsius; this is potentially revolutionary.

– Dr Owen Clarkin of DCU’s School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering has developed a minimally invasive solution for the treatment of brain aneurysms, a bulging blood vessel surrounding the brain. EnduraGel is a hydrogel which can be injected through small tubes from the groin into the brain. Once injected into the affected area, the gel hardens, closing the aneurysm and preventing blood ingress and continued expansion. It is estimated that one in 50 people have a brain aneurysm which, if untreated, can rupture, causing bleeding into the brain, often resulting in severe disability or death. Clarkin and his team hope that this new technology will improve the clinical outcomes of patients with cerebral aneurysms and allows doctors to treat aneurysms currently thought to be untreatable.

– Founded by first-year DCU students, Adam Dalton (BSc Business) and Evan Darcy (BSc Engineering), along with BT Young Scientist winner, Shane Curran, Robotify produces a DIY robotics kit. Aimed at parents who want to introduce their children to the world of coding, and at teachers who are interested in running their coding course, Robotify also runs a number of courses and summer camps throughout the year to encourage young people to get interested in Stem subjects.