14 sci-tech innovators solving the world’s big problems

19 Dec 2017

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Meet the scientists and technologists who are transforming, extending and saving our lives.

Humanity’s pursuit of science is one of discovery but also of self-preservation. With every advancing decade, we are living longer lives thanks to the kind of remarkable medical advances dreamed up by some of these innovators. There are also those developing the science and technology to ensure these lengthening lifespans can be happy and healthy ones.

That said, the health of the world depends on the health of the planet itself and, thankfully, there are those keeping tabs on the temperature of the Earth and reminding us that it, too, needs help for its survival.

Quarraisha Abdool Karim

Quarraisha Abdool Karim

Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim at her appointment as the UNAIDS special ambassador for adolescents and HIV. Image: UNAIDS

A South African of Indian origin, Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim has established herself as one of the world’s leading AIDS researchers. During her career, she has made pioneering contributions to understanding the HIV epidemic among young people, especially among young women, and is a strong advocate for the rights of people living with and affected by HIV. One of her greatest scientific contributions was a demonstration of the effectiveness of an experimental gel for women to prevent HIV infection during intercourse.

Newly appointed as the UNAIDS special ambassador for adolescents and HIV, Abdool Karim will now be instrumental in helping the 11 organisations under this umbrella towards ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Elina Berglund

A former particle physicist, Elina Berglund left her job at the prestigious CERN to co-found Natural Cycles with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Natural Cycles is an app that utilises an algorithm to detect and predict ovulation and fertility. According to a Pearl Index study, the efficacy rate for perfect use of the fertility-monitoring device is 99pc.

While the technology is relatively new in comparison to the traditional contraceptive pill, Berglund is playing a vital role in providing more options for women’s health. She previously told The Guardian: “I’m still surprised that there hasn’t been such a product before.”

Geraldine Boylan

Geraldine Boylan

Prof Geraldine Boylan, director of the Infant research centre and professor of neonatal physiology at UCC. Image: Diane Cusack

A former Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Researcher of the Year, Prof Geraldine Boylan has established herself as a world-leading expert in the study of neonatal brain function at the Infant centre, which is using artificial intelligence to monitor newborns for signs of a seizure.

For more than a decade, Boylan has been working with a team of clinicians, engineers, nursing staff, parents and babies to develop this seizure-detection technology, with tech companies now eager to adopt its ANSeR algorithm. This AI-driven technology enables early detection of seizures in newborns – most of whom show no physical sign of seizure activity – allowing for early medical intervention and dramatically decreasing the risk of long-term neurological damage.

Niamh Buckley


Dr Niamh Buckley, QUB School of Pharmacy. Image: TechWatch

Dr Niamh Buckley of Queen’s University Belfast School of Pharmacy is using her skills to tackle an issue close to most people’s hearts: cancer. In 2013, she was awarded a fellowship with Breast Cancer Now to study triple-negative breast cancer and the BRCA1 gene. Through this fellowship, she is aiming to analyse tumours and poor outcomes to develop new biomarkers for personalised treatment.

‘By 2050, we want to ensure no one dies from cancer’

She recently spoke to TechWatch about her ambition to create a richer life for cancer patients: “By 2050, we want to ensure no one dies from it. It will be a manageable disease, not a life sentence.”

Ciara Clancy


Ciara Clancy on stage at Inspirefest in June 2015. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest alum Ciara Clancy was named Best Young Entrepreneur by Google in March of this year – and it’s not hard to see why. Clancy is the founder of Beats Medical, a company that aims to improve the lives of those living with Parkinson’s disease. Using a smartphone app, patients can avail of soundwave treatment to boost mobility, offering them greater control and independence.

‘I wouldn’t be able to walk away without making sure that the change we want to create has happened’

Last October, Beats Medical announced its intention to seek €3m in funding to continue along its admirable path. Clancy recently told The Irish Times: “I wouldn’t be able to walk away without making sure that the change we want to create has happened.”

John Cryan

The phrase ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ is something Prof John Cryan takes to heart as a principal investigator at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork. Earlier this year, he and his fellow researchers claimed the discovery of a link between bacteria in the gut and neurological activity – a world-first that opens the door for further strategies to defeat illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

With 250 peer-reviewed articles to his name, Cryan’s work on the microbiome has garnered him international attention, with hope that we could one day find a way to use it to treat symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Jennifer Doudna

Now in the midst of an explosion of interest with potential to change the face of genetic research, CRISPR-Cas9 may not have even existed were it not for Berkeley-based biochemist Dr Jennifer Doudna, who developed the gene-editing technology with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier.

‘I’ve been encouraging an international discussion [about CRISPR] because the worst thing we could do is to ignore it, and for scientists not to get involved’

While patent debates over CRISPR’s true owner continue, Doudna currently leads her own lab to further develop its applications, but has also advocated for increased awareness of the ethical implications for such a powerful tool. “I’ve been encouraging an international discussion because the worst thing we could do is to ignore it, and for scientists not to get involved,” she recently said.

Nora Khaldi

Dr Nora Khaldi, Nuritas

Dr Nora Khaldi speaking at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

No stranger to Siliconrepublic.com, we have a hard time keeping up with the inspirational Dr Nora Khaldi. Her biotech start-up Nuritas uses AI to discover peptides in food in the overall quest for improved health and wellness, and it has caught the eye of some celebrity investors.

‘Anyone that comes and tells you a scientist is not an entrepreneur is off their head’

In January, Khaldi was named Woman of the Decade in Business and Leadership by the World Economic Forum. A few months later, she added the Rising Star prize to her list of accolades. At Inspirefest 2016, she offered this gem for anyone paddling in the multidisciplinary pool: “Anyone that comes and tells you a scientist is not an entrepreneur is off their head.”

Rachel McLoughlin

Rachel McLoughlin TCD

Dr Rachel McLoughlin, assistant professor in immunology at Trinity College Dublin. Image: Science Foundation Ireland

2017 has been a whirlwind year for Dr Rachel McLoughlin. In October, along with two other Trinity College Dublin peers, McLoughlin was jointly awarded €5.5m as part of SFI’s Investigator Awards in Science to help further her research in antibiotic-resistant MRSA. The following month, she was named SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year, proving that she is one to watch in this space.

‘I hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be a vaccine available to prevent MRSA infection’

“I hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be a vaccine available to prevent MRSA infection and that my research will have directly contributed to that,” she said, in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com.

Andrew Parnell

Prof Andrew Parnell, co-founder, Prolego Scientific. Image: UCD

Prof Andrew Parnell, co-founder, Prolego Scientific. Image: UCD

Statistics and data are music to the ears of Dr Andrew Parnell, co-founder of Prolego Scientific, which is using artificial intelligence to improve food sustainability.

As a researcher at University College Dublin, Parnell has set the bar high – almost literally – for using statistical data to precisely calculate the rise of sea levels with the onset of climate change. Unlike previous attempts, Parnell’s method showed that water levels are rising rapidly, and is the only one that “aims to fully account for uncertainty using statistical methods”, according to his own words at a recent statistician meeting.

Adrian Raftery

Prof Adrian Raftery, University of Washington. Image: SFI

Prof Adrian Raftery, University of Washington. Image: SFI

If there was one researcher who sent shockwaves across the globe this year, it was Dublin-born Prof Adrian Raftery who, in August, published a paper detailing how the planet has just a 5pc chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Based at the University of Washington, Raftery’s research was based on vast statistical analysis of 50 years of trends in world population, GDP and carbon intensity.

Earlier this year, Raftery was named as one of the winners of this year’s SFI St Patrick’s Day Science Medal for his development of new statistical methods on the social, environmental and health sciences.

Ellen Roche

Dr Ellen Roche

Dr Ellen Roche. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Ellen Roche of NUI Galway has astounded physicians and engineers across the globe with her soft robotic sleeve that could potentially save millions of people who would otherwise die of heart failure. As she explained at Inspirefest 2017, Roche’s idea was to develop a flexible, silicone sleeve that wraps around the heart and uses externally controlled soft pneumatic actuators to mimic the outer muscle layers.

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development – where Roche completed her PhD – has filed a patent application for her technology and is actively pursuing commercialisation.

Leonard Schleifer

Dr Leonard Schleifer. Image: Regeneron

Dr Leonard Schleifer. Image: Regeneron

Regeneron co-founder, chair and CEO Dr Leonard Schleifer caused a stir in late 2016 when he admonished his pharmaceutical peers over “ridiculous” drug prices. This year, he continued to openly criticise his own industry.

‘Drug pricing has the potential to be the undoing of our industry’

While it can be hard to see how a drug-maker selling dermatitis treatment for $37,000 a year is advancing affordable healthcare, this innovative biotech is nevertheless undercutting competitors – and its chief is charging ahead with a new philosophy in pharma. According to a Credit Suisse report, Regeneron is among the least reliant on price increases for income growth, and Schleifer notably declared: “Drug pricing has the potential to be the undoing of our industry.”

Indu Subaiya

Indu Subaiya on stage at Slush 2017. Image: Tapio Auvinen/Slush Media

Indu Subaiya on stage at Slush 2017. Image: Tapio Auvinen/Slush Media

Born in Bangalore, Indu Subaiya is founder and executive vice-president of Health 2.0, a media platform that promotes and catalyses new technologies in healthcare. She is a passionate advocate for the end to healthcare disparities and for increased diversity across the leadership ranks of her industry.

Along with her conference co-chair Matthew Holt, Subaiya has identified five drivers for the decentralisation of healthcare, citing new enterprise protocols such as blockchain, intelligent data analysis through machine learning and AI, and disruptive digital health start-ups as some of the factors set to transform healthcare as we know it.


Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Super Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale until 24 December 2017.