Innovation beyond the final frontier

Mon, Dec 3, 2012, 00:00

Space might seem a long way off, but for several Irish companies it offers plenty of potential for innovation. If you look at it the right way, the challenges posed by a spacecraft can also help to solve problems on Earth.

Meanwhile, the information being picked up by satellites that circle the planet can give valuable insights into our environment, again if you look at it the right way.

Currently about 40 Irish companies are engaging with the European Space Agency (ESA) to carry out product research and development. So what are some of those companies doing?

Quick and compact blood testing

They include Cork-based Radisens Diagnostics, which is developing point-of-care blood-testing technology that gives rapid results from just a finger-prick of blood.

Radisens is working with the ESA to put its technology aboard the International Space Station, which is orbiting Earth and is home to several crew members at any one time.

The technology being developed by Radisens allows a person to put a drop of blood on to a small plastic disc; the disc is placed into a small instrument and the blood gets spun and analysed. Ultimately the idea is that a GP could take a small blood sample from a patient and could give the results during the same visit.

“You get lab-grade results within a couple of minutes,” says Radisens’s chief executive Jerry O’Brien, who is based at the Rubicon Centre at Cork Institute of Technology. “We concentrate on chronic disease – diabetes, thyroid disorder, heart disease and kidney disease – but we have a long road map to look at other health-related issues.”

And where does ESA come in?

“Currently on the International Space Station, they have a number of work stations to do blood testing – it’s the traditional route of taking of blood by needles, then that goes into a tube and into a big centrifuge,” O’Brien says. “In terms of potential contamination, safety and quality, it is a problem. We are very much solving those problems by putting the drop of blood on the disc and then everything is done on the disc.”

The €1 million project will send the Radisens’ technology to the ISS and use it to analyse astronauts’ blood for various bodily changes in space. The spin-off for Radisens is that the project is highly relevant to Earth, too.

“The space market isn’t a huge volume market,” says O’Brien, “but what we are developing in space is exactly what we need commercially as well. In the space station it’s a closed environment, so we can address all the quality, safety and containment issues, which are extremely important for an instrument like this in the GP clinic, where there are the same very high standards of quality and safety and control.”

Hands-free ‘reading’

Another challenge aboard the International Space Station is how to navigate complex documents – such as technical manuals – under conditions where paper and computer keyboards aren’t that easy to handle.

Galway-based SyberNet is helping to find a solution. The software company specialises in applications for self-service, primarily over the telephone, such as the ones that allow you to pay a bill without needing to speak to a human. But for the ESA, SyberNet is working on an application that lets a user navigate documents using just their voice, and which automatically reads back the content out loud to the user.

“It allows the astronaut to navigate a complex procedure document using his voice in situations where his hands or eyes might be busy and where it is difficult to use a keyboard and mouse,” explains SyberNet’s founder John Melody.

The system is due to be put through its paces on the International Space Station early next year, but it should also find uses on Earth, notes Melody.

“We are looking at opportunities for using the technology in a way that might allow people to navigate documentation in an environment where carrying a laptop is impossible or very difficult to do, such as carrying out maintenance in an awkward area.”

Eye in the sky

While some companies are sending their experiments into space, others are making use of the information being beamed from space down to Earth. TechWorks Marine, in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, is working with the ESA to develop a set of Earth observation products designed to help monitor the environmental impact of wastewater treatment and desalination plants.

In Ireland, the project will particularly look at wastewater treatment plants in Donegal Bay and their effects on the surrounding coastal environment. The “Earth obs” approach can help to optimise wastewater management, says TechWork Marine’s managing director Charlotte O’Kelly.

“My company monitors the ocean in real time at very specific locations over very long periods of time at very high resolution,” she adds. “The ESA satellites give us the spatial coverage that our platforms don’t have and our platforms give the ESA images the ground-truthing validation that they don’t have.”

Valuable contribution: Ireland to increase investment into the European Space Agency

Ireland is one of 20 member states in the European Space Agency, which has an annual budget of about €4 billion for drawing up and implementing the European space programme. It is funded through financial contributions from the member states. The amount each member pays is calculated on the basis of gross national product. Companies from member states can then tender for contracts up to the total value of the country’s contribution.

Ireland has been a member of the ESA since its foundation in 1975 and the annual participation fee has been running at about €14 million in recent years.

According to Enterprise Ireland, which encourages ESA-industry engagement in Ireland, the level of spin-off export sales (including direct ESA contracts) from Irish investment in the ESA was about €35 million in 2010.

“We expect to see further significant increases in exports sales in the coming years,” says Tony McDonald, programme manager of space industry activities with Enterprise Ireland. “This number of Irish companies working with ESA is also growing steadily year on year, and it’s a trend which we expect to see continue as new technology companies emerge.”

Space strategy

Last month, Ireland was represented at the ESA’s ministerial council in Naples, which was to decide the direction of space strategy. The upshot is that over the coming years, Ireland will contribute about €17 million to ESA a year to participate in programmes.

According to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, employment in the sector is projected to rise from 1,570 in 2011 to more than 2,000 in 2015, while exports are projected to increase from €27 million in 2011 to more than €56 million by 2015.

“When you talk about space,” says Minister for State Seán Sherlock, who presented Ireland’s case to the ESA in Italy last month, “people think it’s some esoteric thing that has no real advantage to the Irish economy, but the reality is that new technologies being spun out on orbiters and satellites have a downstream commercial effect for the companies by helping them to win other types of contracts. The association between Irish companies and ESA is good for Irish companies because it is a very high standard of collaboration.”

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