Taking on society’s great challenges
The finalists for the €1m Science Foundation Ireland Future Innovator Prize have been chosen
The finalist projects include one that uses gene-editing technologies to treat rare diseases. Photograph: iStock
The six finalists for the €1 million Science Foundation Ireland Future Innovator Prize competition have been chosen following a rigorous and highly competitive process overseen by an international expert review panel. The six teams aim to address a number of societal challenges through the development of new, potentially disruptive, technologies.
The aim of the Future Innovator Prize is to encourage scientists and researchers to work together to identify major challenges facing Irish society, and to propose creative and impactful solutions for them.
Among the many novel aspects of the competition is the requirement for a societal impact champion to be part of each team. The champions’ role is to provide a strong societal perspective for the teams as they develop their solutions.
The teams are drawn from University College Dublin (UCD), Dublin City University (DCU), NUI Galway (NUIG), University College Cork (UCC), and Tyndall National Institute (TNI), with the involvement of a number of national agencies, hospitals and world-leading SFI research centres.
The finalist projects include the development of an artificial-intelligence-based system for minimising hospital waiting lists and optimising healthcare capacity in Ireland, the use of gene-editing technologies to treat rare diseases, a means for clinicians to improve the breast cancer diagnostic pathway through real-time point-of-care detection of breast disease, and a novel hydrogel to treat chronic pain.
The competition is funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland and is part of an overall Government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland, according to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) strategy and communications director Dr Ruth Freeman.
“Challenge-based funding is a solution-focused approach to supporting research that uses prizes and other incentives to direct innovation activities at specific problems,” she explains. “The SFI Future Innovator Prize challenges the country’s best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end-users.”
She points out that challenge-based research has been around for a very long time. “People talk about it as if it was something new but it’s a very old idea,” she says.
She refers to the Longitude Prize in this context. Up until the 18th century, sailors had no way of reliably establishing precisely where they were as they had no accurate means of measuring longitude. This led to numerous shipwrecks and instances of the same islands being “discovered” on numerous occasions.
The British government set up the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea to address the challenge and that body put up a prize of £20,000 – worth millions of euro today – for the first person to solve the problem. John Harrison collected half of the prize money for his invention of the world’s first super-accurate clocks which would enable sailors to tell the time at their point of origin accurately, regardless of their location on the globe.
‘An astounding story’
“Longitude is an astounding story,” says Freeman. “That challenge drove lots of innovations. When you look at modern GPS tracking, elements of that come from the various solutions proposed for the longitude challenge. We are trying the emulate that today. It’s a very interesting approach and has been revived by governments and philanthropic organisations around the world. We can be quite siloed in the world of scientific research and the focus on a challenge helps get us out of that and offers lots of different perspectives. One of the things about challenge funding I really like is its focus on the end-user application. That avoids what we call technology push. You can have a wonderful piece of technology but there might be very good reasons why it can’t be used. This doesn’t happen with challenge-based research.”
Reaching this stage of the competition is an achievement in itself, according to SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson: “This programme, by its very design, is highly competitive and seeks to fund excellent research that aims to produce a tangible impact for society. Proceeding to this phase of the programme is a great achievement, and the motivation of the teams demonstrates the appetite and capacity of the Irish research community to help contribute to solving major national and global challenges. Congratulations to each team on their hard work and dedication.”
The competition was launched in 2018 and received 30 applications. “We shortlisted 12 teams for the first phase and gave them €20,000 each to develop their concepts,” says Dr Freeman. “This helped them coalesce as teams and set out the scope of the problem they wanted to solve. We have now cut that number down to six finalists and we have awarded €200,000 to each team to further validate and prototype their proposed solutions. The teams will come back to us at the end of the year and one of them will receive the overall prize award of €1 million to further develop and deploy their solution.”
This is just the beginning for such competitions. “We are looking at challenges in areas like climate change,” says Freeman. “The next competition will address AI for societal good. It will look at how AI can be harnessed for the good of society. SFI supports a huge amount of AI technology development but this is about deployment. It will start with the end user and ask people what AI can do for them in different areas of their lives.”