SFI research fellowships announced

Winners of this year’s SFI research fellowships show the scope and ambition of the valuable programme


The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Industry Research Fellowship programme offers post-graduate researchers in higher education institutions around Ireland the opportunity to work in industry anywhere in the world in order to experience commercial research at first hand.

“If you are a researcher in a higher education institute you have no real idea what working in industry is like,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson.

“The programme allows the researchers to experience for themselves what commercial research in industry is all about.”

Ferguson explains that gaining this experience at an early stage is very important. “There are about 3,000 researchers employed in higher education institutions around Ireland who are supported by Science Foundation Ireland. About 90 percent of them will go on to work in the private sector. This is very important for the people concerned as well as for industry and the economy. The industry fellowship programme is aimed at helping them make that change from academia to industry.”

The programme works by SFI paying the researcher’s salary for a year while they work on a research project in a company anywhere in the world.

“There are no restrictions on where they go or what happens to them at the end of the programme. If they like working for the company and the company wants to keep them they can stay, or they can come home and go back into academia or go to work for another company. The only thing we insist on is that it has to be good research.”

According to Ferguson there are benefits for everyone involved. “If you look at it through the eyes of a multinational company it offers a way of doing research relatively cheaply. For example, they can use the research to do the preliminary research for a future project. It might be a new R&D mandate that they are seeking to win from their parent company and this can help them put in the groundwork for that.”

There are also clear benefits for Ireland. “Multinational firms outside of Ireland get the opportunity to experience high quality Irish researchers and that may potentially influence them in a decision to locate here at some point. Also, there are benefits for small companies. Most of their expenditure is on the wage bill and that means it is difficult for them to undertake research and development projects. Here is an opportunity to take on a cutting edge researcher at very little cost. There are advantages for everyone.”

The companies and researchers can find each other in a number of ways. One of the main avenues is the sfi.ie website which allows companies to look up research areas they are interested in and for researchers to approach them.

“We have also set up a LinkedIn page where young researchers can put up their details and companies can go to it and say what they are looking for.”

The fellowships are awarded twice a year and the latest group was announced last week. They include a number of very exciting projects in areas ranging from oil exploration to salmon farming and drug delivery.

New projects

Dr Dorota Wencel from Dublin City University will partner with BlueBridge Technologies on the development of a critical care monitor for vulnerable patients; Dr Eugene Mahon from University College Dublin is teaming up with Sigmoid Pharma to advance state-of-the-art oral drug delivery; Dr Nicola Piana Agostinetti from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies will work with Tullow Oil on shallow crustal exploration using passive seismics to bridge the gap between academic research and industrial-scale applications; and Dr Philip McGinity from University College Dublin will partner with Marine Harvest on a project focused on salmon aquaculture and the environment.

Ferguson mentions some other very interesting projects. “Marcus Claesson of UCC is working with an Irish company called Second Genome on the role of differential gene expression of certain bacteria in inflammatory bowel disease. Maciej Dobrzynski, also of UCD, will work with AstraZeneca on a project dealing with drug response variability in breast cancer patients. Mark Tangney of UCC will work with Perkin Elmer on the imaging of bacteria and tumours. Anthony Ryan of TCD will be working with SuprTecBox on the development of a biobank information management system. Francesco Caiazza from UCD is teaming up with Alaunus Bioscience on a project to develop a prognostic tool for colorectal cancer. It is also very good to see the state sector becoming involved and Irish Rail will be working with Nora Balfe of TCD on a project to identify the leading indicators for railway driver operations.”

He describes the programme almost as an introductory services for companies to engage with SFI. “This is their ‘starter for 10’ if you like. It is very low risk for the companies involved and hopefully it will help companies engage with SFI for the first time and then become involved in some of our other programmes. This is a wonderful scheme for the researchers as well. We are funding 20 fellowships in the current round, I wish we could do 200.”

SFI is now accepting applications from researchers in Irish higher education institutions to partner with companies in Ireland and abroad under the 2015 SFI Industry Fellowship Programme. Fellowships can be awarded to academic researchers wishing to spend time in industry worldwide and to individuals from industry anywhere in the world, including Ireland, wishing to spend time in an eligible Irish research body. Fellowships of up to €120,000, either full-time or part-time, are available. Academic applicants can be at any level from postdoctoral researchers up to professor. See sfi.ie.