Ireland’s future as a food and agri-tech hotspot

2 Jul 2013

(Left to right) Prof Fergus Shanahan, director of the APC; Mark Ferguson, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland, and Sean Sherlock, Ireland's Research and Innovation Minister

With a growing reputation as a high-tech economy, and a long heritage in food and agriculture, could agri-tech be the next big thing for Ireland? Ireland’s Research and Innovation Minister Sean Sherlock, TD, thinks so. He is confident the country can capitalise on its strengths and expertise around food and agriculture in order to create new industries, new research clusters and, ultimately, jobs.

Sherlock was speaking on the back of the recent announcement that the Irish Government and industry is set to pump a combined €50m into the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) in Cork. The goal is to make the APC an international exemplar for food and medical research, particularly in the areas of probiotics and pharmabiotics. The Government will invest €36m into the centre through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), while industry is set to inject another €14m in the APC.

APC is a collaboration between University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and Teagasc, Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority. Sherlock said the APC will leverage the €50m investment to carry out research in the areas of probiotics, functional foods, and food for health.

“The purpose of this investment is to create further opportunities,” he said. “If you think about the food sector and our ability to create world-class manufacturing around specific food products and export them, where we are going now is further up the innovation chain.” He said this will involve identifying where the opportunities lie in food innovation, to produce products that will act as functional foods with medicinal qualities.

“We’re moving towards new models of functional foods,” he said, adding that Ireland is not on its own in identifying this model of innovation.

“Other countries are doing it but Ireland is very well placed because we have an excellent research infrastructure and there’s a very strong collaboration between it and industry.

“We believe that because we already have an advanced model of manufacturing in the pharmaceutical and food sector, there are further economic opportunities arising from looking at gut health, in particular, to deliver functional foods for an ageing population.”

Food innovation leadership

With the global population ever increasing, Sherlock said the challenges around ageing and infant health are going to become more apparent. “Where Ireland is now pitching itself is to become a global leader in food innovation.”

In terms of the €50m investment in the APC, Sherlock said the funding period will run until 2019.

“When we think about the fact that we have lost 250,000 jobs between 2008 and 2011 and the fact that APC is already a world-class research CSET [Centre of Science, Engineering and Technology] under SFI, we’re now turning APC into a world-class, large-scale infrastructure.”

Sherlock said that with Horizon 2020, the new proposed €70bn EU research and innovation funding programme set to kick off in 2014, Ireland will be in a position to leverage the €50m invested in the APC to seek out further opportunities.

“It would allow us to do collaborations with industry to deliver novel innovations,” he said.

Participating companies in APC investment

To put this in perspective, the 12 companies that are taking part in the combined €14m industry investment in the APC include big names such as Kerry Group, Wyeth Nutrition, Alimentary Health, Second Genome, Trino Therapeutics and Sigmoid Pharma.

“If industry is putting this investment in, it means that industry is serious about leveraging the economic opportunities and the potential to create jobs from these investments. The 12 companies include food, pharmaceutical, diagnostic and even veterinary companies,” he said.

Ireland is currently ranked second in the world in probiotics research, according to Sherlock. “We want to become the world leaders in probiotics research. This research then has the potential to deliver beneficial health outcomes for people throughout the globe.”

Take Ireland as a natural producer of food and think of the number of jobs that are in that landscape, Sherlock said. While he admitted it was difficult to put a definitive figure on the number of jobs that food technology and innovation will create, a real opportunity lies in the fact that manufacturing is the next logical step.

Through the €50m funding that has gone into the APC, the Government is aiming to generate new collaborations between industry and Ireland’s research ecosystem and, in particular, co-operation between its various third-level institutions.

“The Government has embarked on a new philosophy that ensures that, given the size of the country, we see greater research collaboration between all of the research institutions – the universities, the institutes of technology and entities such as the Health Research Board and Teagasc,” explained Sherlock. “We want to see them all come together to collaborate on new areas of high tech opportunity.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 30 June

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic