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Recognising great Irish innovation

The US-Ireland Research Innovation Awards celebrate the extraordinary breadth of innovation happening in Ireland as a direct result of US foreign direct investment

A system to monitor driver behaviour, a standards certification system for products which make claims in relation to allergens, and a programme to enable the fitness industry become more accessible to people with disabilities took the top honours at the 2019 US-Ireland Research Innovation Awards, jointly presented by the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy in May.

FotoNation, which took the award in the multinational category, has been responsible for ground-breaking imaging innovations for more that 20 years. In fact, most digital camera users have probably been using the company’s red eye detection and repair software without even realising.

More recently, the Xperi subsidiary has moved into the facial recognition and biometric technology field and the driver monitoring system is its latest innovation. "We started looking at driver monitoring technology about seven years ago," explains FotoNation co-founder Petronel Bigioi.

“There was no market for it at the time but that didn’t scare us. We had invented the market for our first product. The market will follow if you have the right solution.”

The technology initially detected driver tiredness and inattention as well as distractions in the car. “It directs a light, which is invisible to the human eye, at the driver and detects reflections from it. It uses analytics tools to establish if the driver is paying attention or not. For example, the blink rate of the driver can indicate how tired they are. That’s transmitted back to the car and a controller unit. The car manufacturer can take action such as advising the driver to stop and have a coffee, display an image of a coffee cup on the dash, change the play list or increase the volume on the audio system, emit aromas, or even disengage the accelerator.”

The technology is already being rolled out by a number of car manufacturers on a trial basis. “Winning the award was great for the team here as it highlighted their hard work and the effort they put in to making a difference and potentially saving lives. For the company, it is not only a validation of our research in Ireland but of our ability to bring innovation to the industry. Auto companies are looking for the highest standards and the very best – the award shows we offer exactly that.”

The higher educational institute award went to the Unesco Chair at the Institute of Technology Tralee for a programme that provides resources to enable the fitness industry to embrace diversity and provide a quality, accessible service to people with disabilities.

"There is wide-scale acceptance that people with disabilities have not had the same access to physical activity opportunities as people without disabilities and that this needs to be addressed as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," says Unesco Chair project manager Catherine Carty.

"Universal Fitness Innovation and Transformation [UFIT] is a global social change movement, led by the Unesco Chair in the Institute of Technology Tralee. UFIT aims to increase fitness opportunities for people with disabilities by connecting fitness clubs and centres with local disability service providers and groups and allied professionals to facilitate the inclusion of all in their service offerings and operations."

Affect change

Since its launch in 2015, the UFIT programme has gained traction globally from federations and operators as an appealing brand, approach and programme that can affect change.

“The award is fantastic,” says Carty. “It’s a door-opener and an affirmation of the quality of our research and innovation. It’s also brilliant to be among the elite company of shortlisted finalists.”

SME category award winner Allergy Standards has developed the world’s first scientific standards for consumer products to determine their capability to improve indoor air quality and achieve asthma and allergy friendly certification. The certification programme is the only programme endorsed by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

“When I was studying paediatrics I saw family members of children with asthma being given advice by healthcare professionals to help them be more proactive and engaged in the management of the illness by avoiding triggers and so on,” explains founder Dr John McKeon.

“I wanted to give people actionable insights. How do you select products? What vacuums are best to buy? What paints won’t give off volatile organic compounds? If we could test products for their suitability and performance and badge them, we could develop a certification programme.

The certification programme allows people to have a level of confidence that the product they are purchasing has been tested and should keep the promises made by the manufacturer.

“To get such a prestigious award is fantastic,” McKeon adds. “It elevates our brand and means we are seen as world class. It’s a real shot in the arm to get verification and validation from internationally recognised organisations like the Royal Irish Academy and the American Chamber.”