Special Report
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

Irish company receives €4.5m European funding to aid fight against Covid-19

SiriusXT’s X-ray microscope can help virologists understand how virus is affecting internal structure of cells

An Irish company has received €4.5 million in funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to develop a device which will assist in the fight against Covid-19.

UCD spin-out SiriusXT will use the funding to bring its highly innovative soft X-ray microscope to market. The microscope is capable of producing 3D images of the interior of individual biological cells allowing virologists to see the how the Covid-19 virus is affecting them.

At present, the only devices capable of producing such images without damaging the cells or coating them with heavy metals are synchrotrons, which are the size of football stadiums. There are only four of them in the world and each has a waiting list of over a year for scientists to access them.

SiriusXT’s technology, based on research carried out at UCD, has enabled the development of a miniaturised soft X-ray microscope.


The key to the breakthrough lies in the illumination used, according to SiriusXT chief executive Tony McEnroe. A traditional optical microscope uses visible light to illuminate objects, an electron microscope uses electrons, while a CT-scan uses high energy X-rays which are not suitable for producing images of cells.

“The intellectual property is the ability to produce a bright source of illumination at the wavelength needed to image cells,” says McEnroe. “It’s called soft because it is low energy. The low energy microscope uses low energy photons. We are working at energy levels where it almost behaves like visible light.”

The illumination source was initially developed by the spectroscopy group in the UCD School of Physics.

“The group had been working with extreme ultra-violet (EUV) light sources for use in semiconductor lithography,” McEnroe explains.

“About 10 years ago, the group saw another opportunity and moved slightly away from EUV from the 13 nanometre range to the 2.5 nanometre. The photons are at wavelengths known as X-rays but are so weak they will dissipate in the air. We have to operate the microscope in a vacuum.”

At those wavelengths the light source has a unique capability of producing images of the interior of biological cells without having to slice or stain them.

Black spot

“Cells are made up of two things,” he adds. “They are made up of about 98 per cent water and 2 per cent carbon-based tissues. The photons go through water as if it wasn’t there but are absorbed by carbon. The absorption coefficient is linear with the density of carbon. It is very valuable to be able to tell the different densities of the organelles within the cell structure. The nucleus has a high density and shows up as a dark black spot. Scientists can use the microscope to recognise and segment the various components of the cell.”

The EIC Accelerator funding awarded to the company is specifically for companies who have developed a prototype but need more work to develop it into a commercial product.

“That period is known as the valley of death for companies,” says McEnroe. “Private equity and venture capital investors tend not to be interested at that stage because they need to see revenue generation. We got the funding under the Covid-19 call which was opened in March. We demonstrated that what we are doing helps virologists to understand what’s happening in a cell when its RNA is hijacked by a virus.

“The microscope can help virologists to understand how the virus is working and how it is affecting the internal structure of the cell. It can image the part of the cell where the virus is hiding and help scientists find ways to stop it replicating.”

Very importantly, the EIC funding is a blend of grants and equity. It is designed for companies at an advanced technology readiness level with product ready but not yet in the market. “We have been awarded €1.5 million in grant funding and €3 million in equity,” says McEnroe. “The grant will help us complete the development of the product and we will be able to spend the equity funding on other areas such as sales and marking and other activities required to bring the product to market.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times