Chronic pain treatment wins €1m SFI Future Innovator Prize

8 May 2020

Dr Alison Liddy, leader of the Hydrobloc project at NUI Galway. Image: SFI

Dr Alison Liddy of NUI Galway received a €1m prize for her work developing a solution to treat chronic pain.

Today (8 May), the first winner of the SFI Future Innovator Prize was announced by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD.

A prize of €1m was awarded to Dr Alison Liddy and her team at NUI Galway for the Hydrobloc project, which is a treatment for people suffering from chronic pain.

A special prize of €500,000 was also awarded to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his Pearlabs team at University College Dublin (UCD), in recognition of the potential impact of their project to develop a novel, nanoscale, biological imaging technology.

The prizes were funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), as part of an overall Government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland.


Liddy’s team has developed the Hydrobloc nanogel, which aims to provide drug-free pain relief to chronic neuropathic pain patients without the severe side effects of prescription medications. In Ireland, there are thought to be 300,000 people living with chronic pain caused by damage or diseases affecting the sensory nervous system.

“The SFI Future Innovator Prize has been pivotal in allowing the Hydrobloc team at NUI Galway to significantly progress our research and realise its potential,” Liddy said. “We are honoured to win the final prize and have no doubt after being through the programme that there is a world-class level of innovative talent in Ireland, which will benefit our country in the future.”

The funding has enabled Liddy’s project to progress along the patient pathway, further validate the clinical need among stakeholders, expand potential clinical indications, and develop and refine the core technology through extensive pre-clinical testing.

“A unique aspect of the challenge programme is the social impact element, which emphasised the societal aspects of our solution with crucial input not just from clinicians, but also from patients,” she added.

“By incorporating this public and patient involvement paradigm, we have integrated the voice of the patient into Hydrobloc and ensured that the core goal is the development of a treatment that will improve the lives of patients living with debilitating pain.”


The Pearlabs team in UCD, led by Zerulla, has developed an imaging solution that enables real-time nanoscale optical microscopy. This aims to transform our understanding of processes such as cell signalling and cell proliferation in cancer.

“I am delighted to receive this award, which is verification that the transformative potential of our disruptive imaging method has been recognised,” Zerulla said.

“Our Pearlabs technology will allow life science researchers to understand biomedically relevant mechanisms to enable an unparalleled in-depth understanding of life-threatening diseases such as cancer and pandemic viral infections, including the coronavirus.”

Zerulla added that this could result in faster development of drug delivery and testing, aiding early diagnostics and precision medicine.

SFI’s challenge programmes

The awards from this programme will be used by the winning teams to further develop their solutions with the aim of having a positive impact on society.

Humphreys said: “At this time, as we battle an unprecedented pandemic, we clearly need disruptive science and technology to help us find solutions. I am delighted to support the SFI Future Innovator Prize programme and wish the winning teams all the best as they continue their journey and further develop their concepts for the benefit of society.”

Minister for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan, TD, added: “In the current climate and this rapidly changing world, fast response and agility are required in order to tackle the enormous societal issues we face.

“The challenge funding model, in tandem with our traditional research models, gives us a greater chance of developing the tools to help us quickly address current crises with dynamic and transformative solutions.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic