Seven centres away from research excellence

Prof Mark Ferguson of Science Foundation Ireland at Dublin's Science Gallery, announcing the details of the seven new research centres

Prof Mark Ferguson of Science Foundation Ireland at Dublin's Science Gallery, announcing the details of the seven new research centres


Quick diagnoses of diseases in newborns, improved ways to make medicines, harnessing the vast energy from the waves and building computers that use light to hold information. All of these exciting projects and more will be pursued by seven new research centres announced earlier this week.

The new Science Foundation Ireland centres will transform Ireland’s research landscape, overtly linking the work of academic scientists with private-sector companies. More than 150 firms have committed to taking part in the seven centres including multinationals but also indigenous firms.

The plan is to phase out the existing Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology and the Strategic Research Clusters, and merge their research activity into the new centres. And more centres are on the way, said the foundation’s director general, Prof Mark Ferguson.

The Government has committed €200 million to these seven centres over the next six years, with the funding forming part of the foundation’s annual budget, currently just over €150 million.

For their part, the 156 collaborating companies – this number is also expected to grow – will contribute €100 million, provided either as cash or in-kind, for example access to equipment or services.

A high level of integration is expected, with the researchers moving back and forth between academic and company laboratories.

This will foster deep collaboration that will work for all the partners, says Ferguson. It should also help to produce graduates and postgraduates that already have many of the skills sought by companies involved in research-intensive businesses.

Details about the centres’ funding have yet to be released, but here is an initial look at the centres and the research they will pursue.

Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research Centre (Amber)

Host institution:TCD

Lead investigator:Prof John Boland, director of Crann, the nanotechnology institute

Academic partners:UCC, RCSI

Industry partners:21

The goal is to develop novel new materials for a range of industries including medical devices, electronics, and pharmaceuticals, says Boland. “Amber underlines the importance of materials to industry in Ireland.” Much of the work will be at the nano scale, where Ireland has an international reputation for the quality of its research. Many of the new materials developed and characterised in the Amber lab will have applications in bioengineering, for example using novel materials in a medical setting. Industrial partners will contribute about 43 per cent of the centre’s income.

Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC)

Host institution:UCC

Lead investigator:Prof Fergus Shanahan, APC director and professor of medicine

Academic partners:Teagasc Moorepark, Mercy University Hospital Cork, CIT

Industry partners:13

APC works at the complex interface between food and medicine, says Shanahan. The centre hunts through the vast range of bacteria that populate the gut, looking for bugs that produce useful substances, such as antibiotics. Many of the APC discoveries can be used in the food industry to enhance the nutritional balance of foods and to create new foods, says Shanahan. “That opens up areas for companies to develop new foods that have diversity built into them.” The centre also produces highly qualified graduates who can move across directly into industry.

Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research (Infant)

Host institution:UCC

Co-lead investigators:Prof Louise Kenny, professor at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology; and Prof Geraldine Boylan, professor of neonatal physiology, paediatrics and child health

Academic partners:Tyndall National Institute, RCSI

Industry partners:14

Co-leads Kenny and Boylan have built an international reputation over the past five years developing screening tests for common complications of pregnancy and newborn babies. These provide early diagnosis of problems, allowing the soonest possible intervention to improve treatment outcomes. The centre will fast-track discoveries to the bedside, with discoveries very quickly able to update clinical practice and the diagnosis of disease. This will help children here but also abroad, improving outcomes for mothers and babies.

Irish Photonic Integration Research Centre (I-Pic)

Host institution:Tyndall National Institute

Lead investigator:Prof Paul Townsend, head of photonics

Academic partners:UCC, DCU, CIT

Industry partners:16

Photonics involves the use of light in a range of technologies including computing, says Prof Paul Townsend. I-Pic’s focus will be on the integration of advanced photonics with electronics and microchips. “It is putting all of that on a single semiconductor chip, putting the photonics together with the electronics.” With 120 researchers it is the largest photonics group working in Ireland. “The group will be working with industry from day one,” he says. Any new discoveries will have immediate application in the design and fabrication of “silicon photonic” devices.

Ireland’s Big Data and Analytics Research Centre (Insight)

Co-host institutions:UCD, UCC, NUIG, DCU

Lead investigators:Seven co-lead investigators from the four institutions

Academic partners:Central Statistics Office

Industry partners:45

Insight brings together four existing world-class research centres under a single umbrella to pursue “data analytics”, mining the vast stores of computerised information in support of education, business and industry. Also known as “big data”, the research involves finding new ways to dig out useful information to aid decision-making in healthcare, urban planning and energy usage. This is done by developing algorithms that sift through data to find valuable information and then deliver it in a form that can be used. The Irish Times is one of the industry partners in Insight.

Marine Renewable Energy Ireland (Marei)

Host institution:UCC

Lead investigator:Prof Alistair Borthwick, head of civil and environmental engineering

Academic partners:National Maritime College of Ireland, NUIG, Marine Institute, Teagasc, Geological Survey of Ireland

Industry partners:47

Marei is all about extracting energy from the oceans, including wave, tidal and also marine-wind sources, says Borthwick. It will gather expertise from academia and industry to develop offshore hardware, improve the connectivity of offshore energy to onshore grids, and look at energy storage. “When you bring it all together you get a whole new way to approach marine energy,” he says. While this sector has the potential to bring in foreign investment, it also opens up the possibility of Ireland becoming a lead exporter of the technology that flows from the Marei research group.

Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC)

Host institution:UL

Lead investigator:Prof Kieran Hodnett, dean faculty of science and engineering

Academic partners:UCD, TCD, UCC, DCU

Industry partners: 16

Many drugs are produced as liquids but are then turned into crystalised solids so they can be collected. However, the processes behind crystalisation are not sufficiently understood to avoid impurities that must be removed, says Prof Kieran Hodnett. The centre will study new drug-synthesis methods, crystal growth and drug manufacture to enhance drug formulation. It is multidisciplinary, with chemical and mechanical engineers, process engineers, chemists and biologists involved. It will deal with all steps from chemical synthesis to drug production.

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