Science Foundation Ireland's (SFI) 2025 strategy, Shaping Our Future, sets out the vision that Ireland will be a global innovation leader in scientific and engineering research for the advancement of the economy and society. "The Tangible Benefits theme in the strategy aims for the research we fund to make the greatest possible difference for our society and economy," explains SFI director of industry programmes Dr Siobhán Roche.
“In support of this, SFI seeks to foster academia-industry interactions by building strategic partnerships with industry to perform cutting-edge, industry-informed Stem research,” she adds.
One of the mechanisms developed by SFI to support these research partnerships is the Strategic Partnership Programme. The programme aims to support research initiatives of scale with strong potential for delivering economic and societal impact to Ireland. Since 2013, 28 projects addressing challenges in areas such as healthcare, climate change and financial services have benefitted from €40 million in funding under the programme.
“The Strategic Partnership Programme enables academic researchers to undertake cutting-edge scientific and engineering research in collaboration with a range of potential partners including companies, charities, philanthropic organisations, higher-education institutes and international funding agencies,” says Roche.
There are several fundamental differences between this programme and other SFI collaborative research supports. “When we set out to design the programme, we had flexibility in mind. Each award is custom designed. We engage with applicants to shape each project. We assess its potential impacts and benefits and those that are deemed of sufficiently high quality by our international reviewers receive funding. Also, our other programmes tend to have closing dates each year. That is not the case with the Strategic Partnership Programme, researchers or other applicants can come to us at any time with ideas for projects.”
Projects typically run for between 12 months and five years and receive 50 per cent funding from SFI, generally starting at €400,000 with no upper limit.
Companies of all sizes can benefit from the programme. “It can support multinationals and SMEs to conduct innovative research to improve their productivity and future competitiveness,” Roche points out. “It also supports the development of highly skilled and educated researchers in areas of importance to industry in Ireland.”
One sector where activity has been particularly strong is fintech with a number of partnerships involving companies such as Fexco, in partnership with Prof Philip O'Reilly, UCC, and others such as Bank of Ireland and Citibank who are collaborating with Prof John Cotter at UCD. "These partnerships are helping to build financial research capacity within Ireland through co-funded collaborative research in addition to developing a highly skilled and educated workforce for the sector," she notes.
Almost half of the awards have been in the healthcare sector, involving companies such as Abbvie, Pfizer, Alkermes, Takeda and Novartis, with charities and companies working together in some cases.
Roche points to the example of the Blood Cancer Network Ireland: "This is a partnership between SFI and the Irish Cancer Society and a number of pharma companies and it has benefited Irish patients though the establishment of clinical trials in blood cancers. It provides Irish patients with access to novel treatments and an enhanced level of care."
Another example is the Precision Oncology Ireland partnership, led by professors Walter Kolch and William Gallagher at UCD. The partnership brings together researchers from five universities together with 10 companies and six Irish cancer charities, including the Irish Cancer Society.
"They are using genomics approaches, and other biological information to develop new tests that will diagnose cancer patients based on personal molecular cancer signatures," she explains. "Personalised approaches to the treatment of haemophilia are being explored by Prof James O'Donnell from RCSI in partnership with Takeda and the Irish Haemophilia Association. We are particularly keen to have patient and public involvement in shaping the research within funded partnerships."
The most recent and perhaps most topical partnership is the Covid 19 Research Hub led by professors Kingston Mills and Aideen Long of TCD. "This represents a €4.8 million co-investment between SFI, TCD, AIB and others," says Roche. "It has established a centre of excellence in the immunology of Covid-19. This will provide key information on the immune response to Covid-19 infection, which will inform the design of more effective vaccines, as well as therapeutics that control inflammation."
In the area of climate change, ethe programme is co-funding a number of partnerships that aim to develop and deploy innovative technology approaches to reduce carbon emissions. Digital approaches to informing optimal land use are the focus of partnerships involving Origin Enterprises and Prof Greg O'Hare of UCD and the recently announced Terrain AI partnership between SFI, Microsoft and Maynooth University led by Prof Rowan Feely.
“The Terrain AI project will use a combination of sensor, satellite and data analytics approaches to develop decision support tools that can inform more sustainable land use practices that minimise carbon emissions, with significant potential to reduce the carbon footprint of Irish agriculture, for example,” she explains. “These projects highlight the impact that the Strategic Partnership Programme can deliver. It will be a key vehicle in supporting the ambitions of SFI’s Shaping Our Future strategy.”
Potential applicants to the Strategic Partnership Programme should contact SFI at firstname.lastname@example.org.