7 research teams picked for SFI challenge on Sustainable Development Goals

11 Apr 2022

Image: © Margot/Stock.adobe.com

Research teams from UCD, NUI Galway, Maynooth University and RCSI will compete to address challenges in countries where Irish Aid works.

Seven teams have been shortlisted to compete in a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research challenge focused on developing tech innovations to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The announcement was made today (11 April) by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD, and Minister for Overseas Aid and Diaspora Colm Brophy, TD.

The seven teams will receive a total of €2.47m in funding for projects that could contribute to the UN’s SDG programme, which aims to tackle issues surrounding poverty, world hunger, access to clean water, climate action, sustainable land use and more.

The teams from around Ireland will compete for a top prize of €1m to help advance their project to deployment.

The specific focus of this SFI programme – which was first announced last July – is to address challenges in countries where Irish Aid works. The seven projects represent international collaborations between research institutes in Ireland and four Irish Aid countries, which are Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and Vietnam.

“SFI’s challenge funding programmes seek to support Ireland’s best and brightest, to develop novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant societal challenges,” Harris said. “Today it is about addressing development challenges under the UN SDGs in Irish Aid’s partner countries.”

SFI is looking to tackle a range of societal problems through challenge-based funding. In February, it shortlisted 10 research teams to develop solutions to key challenges for use across the Irish Defence Forces.

The shortlisted projects in the SDG challenge focus on a variety of issues such as improving surgical training through data science, treatments for vision loss, care pathways for back pain, diagnosis of pneumonia and addressing water sanitation.

“Having this level of talent compete in the SDG challenge bodes well for the future of scientific research and I look forward to seeing the different solutions that develop throughout the programme,” SFI director general Prof Philip Nolan said.

University College Dublin

Three teams from University College Dublin (UCD) have been shortlisted for the challenge.

The first project, called Backtrack, will look at reducing the burden of low-back pain using technology-enabled care pathways. It is led by Dr Cliona O’Sullivan, with support from UCD’s Prof Brian Caulfield and Prof Jerome Kabakyenga from Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.

The second team, Biotope, aims to reduce childhood mortality through the improved diagnosis of pneumonia. It is led by Dr Joe Gallagher, with Dr Chris Watson from UCD and Queen’s University Belfast and Dr Balwani Mbakaya from Mzuzu University in Malawi.

UCD’s final team, SolarClean, will look at providing access to safe, clean water using sustainable solar technologies. It is led by Dr Demetra Achilleos, with Prof Séamus Fanning from UCD and Prof Pieter Gouws from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

NUI Galway

Two teams were shortlisted from NUI Galway. Floating Treatment Wetland, led by Prof Piet Lens, will look at a nature-based water treatment to reduce health risks from diffuse pollution. The team’s co-lead is Dr Bui Xuan Thanh from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology in Vietnam.

The second team is called SightSave, which will focus on preventing vision loss due to retinal diseases. It is led by Dr Cormac Flynn, with co-leads Dr Joanne O’Dwyer from Galway and Dr Daemon McClunan from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Maynooth University

The Neosepsis team from Maynooth aims to reduce neonatal and maternal mortality through the rapid detection of sepsis in resource-limited environments. The team is led by Prof Sean Doyle and is co-led by Dr Nicola Mountford from Maynooth and Dr Peter Waiswa from Uganda’s Makerere University.


A team from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) University of Medicine and Health Sciences will investigate scaling surgical training using data science. The team – called Surgical Data Science – is led by Dr Debbi Stanistreet and co-led by Dr Wakisa Mulwafu from Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic