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Research in industry: ‘We are excelling in international terms’

Science Foundation Ireland director cites 1,500 projects across range of disciplines

Industry engagement with research has grown dramatically since the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2003. “We’ve come a long way in quite a short period of time,” says the foundation’s director of science and economy Dr Siobhan Roche. “There are now over 1,500 collaborations between research and industry supported by SFI. The 17 SFI researchers have been involved in more than 700 collaborations to date. That’s a staggering number for a small country like Ireland, especially when you consider that the longest established centre we have is just five years old.”

She explains that foundation’s remit is to fund basic and applied research to support the economy, society and enterprise development. “It is all about funding excellent research,” she says. “That’s the core of what we do. It’s about building a knowledge-based economy in Ireland. When we started out building up the science base it was at quite a low level. A significant investment went into that. We have helped build up the quality of science.”

Indeed, Ireland is now ranked 11th internationally for the quality of its scientific research, an improvement of more than 20 places since 2005.

"We are excelling in international terms," says Roche. "That's where industry collaboration programmes came in. Excellent science will attract companies who want to work with the best in the world."


Science Foundation Ireland offers a number of mechanisms which help industry and academia build competitive advantage by enhancing their research and development capabilities, enabling them to engage in projects of scale, and allowing them to explore novel opportunities and priorities.

In terms of commercialisation, the centres have generated 158 licence agreements and 23 spin-out companies

The industry fellowship programme funds placements of academic researchers in industry for periods of between 12 and 14 months. “These have proven to be a great success, with over 130 industry partnerships to date,” says Roche. There has been a high level of interest in the latest call with approximately 80 applications received. Collaborations usually start out small and grow. The industry fellowship programme can be good for that. If the collaboration is successful, they can move on to a larger-scale investment.”

Strategic importance

Those larger investments can include collaborative projects with one of the foundation’s 17 research centres. The centres are focused on areas of strategic importance including pharmaceutical manufacturing, data analytics, medical devices, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology, marine and renewable energy, food, geosciences and software.

Five new centres were officially opened this year as part of an investment of over €98.8 million by the foundation over the next six years. That investment is being matched by industry and EU Horizon 2020 funding.

The centres’ performance over the past five years has been very strong with more than 6,000 journal publications, 3,682 conference publications, and 802 graduates trained to master’s and PhD level and beyond with 36 per cent of those trainees progressing to industry.

In terms of commercialisation, the centres have generated 158 licence agreements and 23 spin-out companies and have received 298 Enterprise Ireland commercialisation awards.

FinTech Fusion will encourage breakthroughs in payment, regulation and insurance technologies

The effectiveness of the research centres has been further enhanced by the the foundation’s Spokes programme which enables them to add new industrial and academic partners and projects. The programme also provides a vehicle to link different centres together. The programme has provided additional funding of more than €40 million for 17 major projects.

Among these is Enable Spoke, which will examine how the internet of things can be used to improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens living in urban environments. Enable's academic researchers will work in partnership with more than 25 companies, including large multinationals such as Intel and Huawei, and SMEs such as Cork-based Accuflow. It will address a wide range of topics including water management, air pollution, transport congestion, data privacy and cybersecurity.

Blockchain and fintech

The Adapt centre is leading a €5 million research programme, FinTech Fusion, which will advance innovations in blockchain and fintech research and promote the creation of a fintech ecosystem in Ireland. FinTech Fusion will encourage breakthroughs in payment, regulation and insurance technologies by accelerating scientific progress and enabling data-driven research. FinTech Fusion's academic researchers will work together with more than a dozen companies including Deutsche Börse, Fidelity Investments, Microsoft, Gecko Governance, Fineos and Zurich.

Microbe Mom, meanwhile, is a joint research investment of €3.4 million by Science Foundation Ireland and leading Irish company Alimentary Health group, led by the foundation's research centre APC Microbiome Ireland. The collaboration will investigate the most likely methods of transfer of bifidobacteria strains from mother to baby, the impact of the mother's diet and health on her gut bacteria and what bacteria she transfers to her baby at birth, and the impact of specific probiotic supplements on mothers' health.

Looking to the future, Roche says the ambition is to continue to grow the number and scale of collaborations between research and industry. “We also want to develop the entrepreneurs of the future and see more successful spin-outs from the research centres. And we want to make sure that we continue to produce the human capital that will serve the needs of society, the economy and industry in key areas like artificial intelligence which will be so important in the future.”