One of the biggest drivers of the transformation of the research and development landscape in the State is Science Foundation Ireland’s network of research centres.
These are 16 located across the country, including Lero in Limerick, the Research Centre for Software, whose projects span everything from driverless cars to healthtech.
The Adapt centre, based in Dublin, is the research hub for digital content technology driven by artificial intelligence (AI).
I-Form, also in Dublin, works on advanced manufacturing. Its work includes the use of data analytics to enable real-time process feedback, as well as augmented reality to improve operator decision-making.
In addition to these cutting-edge research centres, third-level institutions around the country each have technology transfer offices.
These act as a bridge for industry and support the commercialisation of research. Overarching all of them is Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), a national initiative to maximise access to publicly funded research by companies and entrepreneurs.
Last year saw the launch of another initiative designed to ensure new technologies keep driving R&D.
The Innovation Exchange, managed by Dublin BIC and Skillnet Ireland, connects large businesses that are facing innovation challenges with ambitious SMEs that can fast-track solutions.
The Innovation Exchange facilitates digital transformation and the use of emerging technologies such as AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics, across key sectors such as energy, food, travel, health, education, human resources, logistics and compliance.
All in all Ireland now has a rich ecosystem designed to enable businesses of all sizes, and across all sectors, to benefit from emerging technology.
There is now “an effective marketplace” matching those looking for innovation and those that can facilitate them, says Mark Jordan, chief technology officer at Skillnet Ireland.
It’s why the days of internal research and development, which typically only large organisations could afford in any case, are on the wane, he says. “Partnerships are now the number one thing that drives innovation in sectors from automotive to pharmaceuticals to life sciences”, says Jordan.
Machine learning and AI have themselves become great catalysts for research and development, says Ken Hardy, head of R&D incentives practice at KPMG Ireland.
“The adoption of AI/ML and data analytics are having a significant impact on industrial research and development in Ireland and as deep technology becomes ubiquitous across industries other than pure computer science we are seeing accelerated rates of development, enabling more complex products and processes.”
Centres of excellence in industries such as medtech, pharma, network engineering, logistics and financial services are being located in Ireland “specifically to harness Ireland’s capabilities in AI and ML,” he says.
His team has noticed a renewed importance on data and metadata too — data about data. There are two key drivers for this, he says. Firstly, companies are seeking metrics to enable them to become more agile. In manufacturing this could be calculating how long it will take for the upfront cost of automation to outweigh the cost of a manual production line.
The second is the fact that companies seeking to leverage the benefits of AI and machine learning know that the quality of output of learning algorithms is dependent on the quality of data input. “This places a renewed emphasis on the type of data that should be collected and how this data should be used,” says Hardy.
These new technologies are having an impact across the spectrum. He points to examples such as the use of AI to detect young children’s speech patterns, process differences in accents or dialects to better assess students’ reading levels, and the fact that during Covid, AI was utilised to accelerate drug repositioning.
One company using emerging technologies to transform the health insurance sector is Legato Healthcare Ireland, which has established its global innovation centre in Limerick. It employs 130 people.
“For us it’s all about creating the software needed for health industry transformation,” says John Shaw, who heads it up.
AI is a major part of its strategy in Limerick, enabling it to glean insights that will enable the company to predict and prevent health issues. That, in turn, holds the prospect of transforming not just the health insurance sector, but people’s lives.
“Our country can’t afford for every citizen to have a heart transplant, for example. So it’s about how to we help people avoid the need for one,” he explains.
It uses data to look for patterns of behaviour, and, on foot of this, personalised guidance can be tailored. This personalisation part is key.
“In terms of where something is brought to your attention, we can’t react to generalities but we can to a personalised message. For us it’s about becoming a health assurance company, rather than a health insurance company, with data driving that,” he says.
Most people born today will make it to their 95th birthday, he points out. How they celebrate it will, to a significant degree, be down to the healthcare choices they made along the way.
The health insurer of the past was a passive taker of premiums. In the future it will increasingly send out recommendations to customers along the way, to help keep them well.
The data-driven health initiative Legato is working on will enable people to “participate in a health awareness journey” with knowledge as the key to sustained good health. “It’s about helping you avoid a calamity, rather than simply having a reactive strategy,” says Shaw.