SFI’s Beacon centre aims to shake up Ireland’s bioeconomy in a big way

27 Sep 2017

Image: Zane R/Shutterstock

With Prof Kevin O’Connor at the helm, the new SFI Beacon research centre is aiming to take Ireland’s bioeconomy and turn it into a well-oiled, profitable machine.

You could argue that from the outside, the bioeconomy – which covers the economic side of agriculture and marine – is coming along nicely, with the two sectors contributing billions to the Irish economy each year.

However, beneath the thousands of jobs they support and the notable success abroad in our produce, a major opportunity is being missed to take the waste products from the agriculture and marine sectors, and use the latest technology to turn them into valuable businesses of their own.

That’s the aim of the new Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) bioeconomy research centre, Beacon, headed by Prof Kevin O’Connor.

Launched recently with three other SFI research centres, Beacon is at the head of a new wave of research and interest into products, technologies and innovations that harness nature not just for profits, but for the future of our planet.

“We’re not asking the current bioeconomy to make dramatic changes to what it does; what we’re saying is that we know you’re very good at making food and feed, but do you generate side streams when you’re doing that?” said O’Connor in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com.

One of these side streams that major biotech and agritech companies could tap into is the field of nutraceuticals, ie chemicals that contribute to our health and wellbeing, such as vitamins.

Targeting this industry is an obvious strategy for a market so heavily involved in the biotech world. A recent report predicted that by 2022, the global nutraceutical market could be worth just under $300bn.

“We’re really talking about taking chemistry, biology, agriculture, social science, business, and bringing them altogether to develop technology, identify opportunities and what impact they will have for Ireland,” O’Connor explained.

From byproducts, to products to buy

One common byproduct of various agri-businesses that O’Connor said has major potential is simple sugar.

While it might currently prove to be too costly to separate it out with traditional methods, by using new developments in the fields of biology and chemistry, it could be converted into things such as less-harmful plastics, glue or paint.

In one example, Beacon is looking into using this sugar byproduct to develop feasible vaccines, or even in chemicals that could aid in our global addiction to antibiotics, as fears over drug resistance continue to grow.

“Chemicals that we can produce that could be added to animal feed would reduce the amount of antibiotics put into feed, so that we could contribute to reducing the risk of resistance,” he said.

The same practices are set to go into Ireland’s fisheries industry, which produces its own side streams through the sustainable exploitation of vast resources such as algae and seaweed, which are being used in everything from cleaner chemicals, to ones that can rid the oceans of harmful microplastics.

Product of UCD Earth Institute

This sustainability focus is effectively a product of the work O’Connor was instrumental in at University College Dublin (UCD) Earth Institute, which he showed us in 2014.

Three years later, he believes the work he and his fellow researchers did there has carried over, but with a greater focus on reaping rewards from sustainability and climate change awareness.

“Beacon, in a way, is a more applied version of the UCD Earth Institute because we’re dealing directly with industry challenges and bringing the knowledge from [the Earth Institute] and applying it from specific challenges in the bioeconomy,” he said.

“That will allow new technology in the short term and future technologies in the long term as well.”

So, who stands to benefit most from a more diversified bioeconomy? There is little doubt that the biggest corporations are quick to realise the demand for bio-inspired products, with SC Johnson recently acquiring two eco-friendly cleaning companies in the form of Ecover and Method.

But, in O’Connor’s view, it could be the smaller, rural areas that feel the biggest advantage from a bioeconomy.

“In rural Ireland, if you have the right smart investment, right policy framework, where Irish businesses are stimulated to innovate, then they will, and that will drive diversification, growth, and satisfy consumer demand.”

Updated, 2.16pm, 28 September 2017: This article was amended to remove an incorrect association between Johnson & Johnson and SC Johnson.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic