Institute keen to apply ICT knowledge of human health to animal welfare

The fourth Tyndall Institute head – the first who was not a professor – is applying his experience of Silicon Valley

From left: Alan O’Riordan, Tyndall Institute; Riona Sayers, Teagasc and Kieran Drain, Tyndall Institute CEO, at the launch of AgriSense in Cork. photograph: daragh mcsweeney/provision

From left: Alan O’Riordan, Tyndall Institute; Riona Sayers, Teagasc and Kieran Drain, Tyndall Institute CEO, at the launch of AgriSense in Cork. photograph: daragh mcsweeney/provision

Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 01:00

It may seem a long shot trying to make the connection between one of Europe’s leading research institutes for ICT and the deaths of calves on our farms, but the connection is there and it is an example of a new direction being taken by Tyndall National Institute.

“ICT makes things smarter. Why not use ICT to make things like agriculture and medical devices smarter?” asks the institute’s chief executive officer Dr Kieran Drain. “I want to see us exploit what has been invested in centres like Tyndall. How can we get an impact from excellence?”

Drain signed up as chief executive last January, coming back to Ireland from the US where he worked exclusively in the private sector.

“I am the fourth head of Tyndall but I am the first who was not a professor. I have never worked in the public sector and have been involved in research for 30 years in the private sector,” he says.

He has begun to change things at Tyndall, reapplying what he learned in Silicon Valley about the importance of research, basic and applied. “I don’t really see the difference between the two,” he says of this old chestnut.

Tyndall is an “atoms to systems” research centre where blue skies research helps feed products and ideas into the commercialisation pipeline. “We are as much at the ‘what if’ end of research as we are on the delivery of new products.”

Tyndall plans to launch its five-year strategic plan next week and the document will map out the new direction being taken by the organisation.

From its beginnings, the institute has maintained close links with industry, so the decision by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to place a new emphasis on this was nothing new for the Cork-based research centre.

It has a working relationship with 200 companies but still manages to maintain its status as a leading ICT research institute. It has about 460 researchers, but 30 of them are employees of companies such as Intel and Applied Materials, so the research it pursues is certainly of interest to its industrial partners. “A core part of the strategy involves pushing ICT into all segments of the Irish economy,” says Drain.

Medical devices
An early target is medial devices, where sensors developed from new materials research and optical systems can be reapplied to deliver advanced diagnostic services. These in turn can open up the potential for jobs and spin-out companies.

If use of ICT can contribute to human health, though, why couldn’t it benefit animal health and welfare? No reason whatsoever, it would seem, as evidenced by the launch today of a US-Ireland animal health research project worth €900,000.

The partnership includes Tyndall working with the Georgia Institute of Technology and Queen’s University Belfast, with the aim being to develop a sensor-based diagnostic kit for bovine respiratory disease.

This is the top cause of death among calves here, animal losses that run into the millions of euros in terms of value. Part of the problem is the diagnostic methods being used to warn of disease can take up to four weeks.

Current approaches require a laboratory but the “AgriSense” consortium will deliver a diagnostic test that can identify any of the four main viral agents, delivering the results literally in the field in about 15 minutes, says Drain. It will go into livestock testing within the next three years.

AgriSense is a perfect example of where Tyndall wants to go, its chief executive says. “We are an ICT institute that is applicable to any area. I don’t have to change what I do at the institute, I just need to find ways to interact with more areas that can utilise our research findings.”

Maintaining a close relationship with industry does raise issues such as who is running the research programme and what to do about intellectual property.

Tyndall is in control of its own fate in the research it pursues and Enterprise Ireland’s IP framework can help in this area, but these distract from the institute’s mission as he sees it.

“We are really about driving impact,” he says, and if he wants to give a small company what it needs to succeed, he will do this and consider the IP later. “We bring joined-up thinking to the companies. We take their challenges and bring them back an answer.” The goal is to show them how something different can be done.

Strategic plan
The strategic plan when launched will be short-lived, but not because it will go out of date. Drain is introducing a rolling five- year strategy that will be updated every 12 months. “That is what we do in the private sector.” He also wants the strategy to be a “pathway” document that reaches targets and not an aspirational document.

“This is a very powerful institute,” he believes. He wants it to be one of the tools in the IDA Ireland toolbox in terms of leveraging foreign direct investment, expansion of research activity here by multinationals and a place where students receive real world research training. All of these give a measurable and important return on the euros being invested by the State.