Competitive funding is challenging Irish researchers to make an impact

30 Sep 2022

Image: © leszekglasner/

Researchers who took part in Science Foundation Ireland challenges said they could hone their projects through engaging with important stakeholders.

Challenge funding is playing a key role in honing research projects across Ireland, according to researchers.

This form of funding uses prizes, phases, set timelines, mentorship and competition to direct research activity. In August, the Government announced a National Challenge Fund of €65m for research projects in the areas of green transition and digital transformation.

It consists of eight different research challenges that are funded by the EU and managed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which has looked to tackle a range of societal problems through this funding model.

Earlier this year, it shortlisted 10 research teams to develop solutions to challenges for use across the Irish Defence Forces, and then picked seven teams to develop tech innovations to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

While the funding award is a key motivator for the research teams involved, there are various other benefits that come from participating in these challenges. One of these is getting to engage with important stakeholders.

Prof Patricia Maguire of University College Dublin (UCD) is part of the AI Premie team, which looked at combining AI with information carried by platelets to help doctors diagnose pre-eclampsia.

Her team won a special prize in SFI’s AI for Societal Good challenge last year. Maguire has previously discussed the importance of taking part in the challenge, as she had never spoken to a patient before for the project.

“This funding enabled us to speak, as a team, to speak to over 300 stakeholders from across the world that had been affected by pre-eclampsia,” Maguire said in a video. She added that a “conservative estimate” would be that involvement in the challenge “shaved five years” off the project’s development timeline.

“Challenge funding has benefitted our research because it completely altered our thinking,” Maguire said. “What we had envisaged as a solution we found out in concept phase just wouldn’t work.”

Other researchers involved in these challenges spoke to about the importance of stakeholder engagement. One of them is Prof Tim McCarthy from Maynooth University, who is working on a project called Co-Pilot-AI as part of the Defence Forces challenge.

Using Earth observation and AI technologies, his team is looking to create a new system to provide real-time information to responders in the air and on the ground.

McCarthy said this challenge has allowed the Co-Pilot-AI team to see how the concept would be used by important stakeholders such as Air Corps helicopter pilots, fire chiefs, the National Parks & Wildlife Service rangers and forestry managers.

“Stakeholder engagement was key to the Co-Pilot-AI team gain a better understanding of the end-user perspective,” McCarthy said.

He added the biggest challenge has been the “relatively short time allocated” to designing, developing, testing and assessing the prototype with relevant stakeholder groups.

Honing research direction

Another medical project that has benefited from stakeholder engagement is Hydrobloc, which was developed by University of Galway spin-out ReleviumBio.

Hydrobloc is a gel solution that aims to provide sufferers of chronic neuropathic pain with long-term restorative pain relief. The project won the SFI Future Innovator Prize in 2020.

ReleviumBio CEO Dr Alison Liddy said that during the challenge, patients were the main stakeholders the team dealt with and “that was really new to us”.

“Also our engagement with investors was something that was a new experience for us,” she added.

Liddy said engaging with patients was “fundamental” to the project’s success, as speaking to those who live with the conditions the team wished to treat “played a significant role in the direction that our research took”.

“It gave us the real perspective of those people that our research was aiming to help as well as assisting us in validating the problem.”

A ‘more realistic’ project

SolarCool is a project that aims to extend the lifespan of solar panels in hot climates by addressing overheating issues at both the solar cell and solar panel level.

This project came from the Nanothermal research group and was funded through a special prize in the SFI Zero Emissions Challenge.

Dr David McCloskey from Trinity College Dublin is the principle investigator of Nanothermal. He said stakeholder engagement was a “very important part of this project”.

“We had previously completed projects in thermal management in the microelectronics industry but the market structure and ecosystem of large-scale solar farm development and operation was completely new to us,” McCloskey said.

He explained that the team identified five key stakeholder groups during the challenge and engaged with all of them at different levels, such as solar farm developers, asset managers, panel manufacturers, government bodies and policymakers.

Through key conversations, McCloskey said the team was able to hone the design “to something that was more realistic”.

“We learned that there is a lot of cost involved in packaging and transport of solar panels from the manufacturer to the site and that any adaptation we suggested would need to fit in the industry standard form factor,” McCloskey said.

“This means that the same number of panels would fit in a shipping container and the transport costs associated with each panel would not increase. We then changed or design according to fit in with this requirement.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic