Six Irish researchers secure ERC grants to test out scientific concepts

7 Feb 2022

Image: © Denys Rudyi/Stock.adobe.com

Five researchers from Trinity and one from University of Limerick have received funding to put pioneering research into practice.

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a total of €25m in Proof of Concept grants to 166 researchers. This includes five researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and one from the University of Limerick.

The grants, worth €150,000 per researcher, are designed to help them bridge the gap between the results of their pioneering research and the early phases of commercialisation.

Future Human

The funding will allow researchers to verify the practical viability of scientific concepts, explore business opportunities and prepare patent applications. The Proof of Concept grant scheme is designed for researchers who have been previously funded by the ERC.

“It’s wonderful to see that frontier research has the capacity to generate discoveries that can be quickly put into practice,” ERC president Prof Maria Leptin said.

“Let’s not forget that there is no applied research without basic research feeding the pipeline first – and that very valuable innovations spring from all disciplines, from the physical and life sciences to the social sciences and humanities.”

University of Limerick

Dr Michael Quayle at University of Limerick has received a grant for his project, Attitude-Maps-4-All. The funds will be used to develop a usable method for mapping groups in attitude networks by developing a prototype, development community and exploitation model to maximise its social value.

Quayle received a grant of almost €1.5m in 2018 for a project dedicated to the exploration of attitudes and attitude changes in relation to social dynamics and group identities.

Trinity College Dublin

Five researchers from TCD have been awarded €150,000 each in funding.

Prof Valeria Nicolosi – who has won a Proof of Concept grant for the fifth time and an ERC grant for the seventh – will assess the economic and technical feasibility of developing new electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding materials for use in wireless communications through scalable additive manufacturing technologies.

Nicolosi said preliminary work carried out by postdoctoral researcher Ji Liu – who will be working on this project going forward – showed the potential of 2D nanomaterials for this type of application.

“With the fast development of wireless communication, especially the new 5G technology, EMI shielding is becoming a challenge and high-performance EMI shielding materials are urgently needed for controlling electromagnetic radiation pollution,” Nicolosi added. “We now hope to 3D-print EMI shielding materials that more precisely fit user needs.”

Prof Tríona Lally is looking into a new software tool that can help medics diagnose patients who are at risk of stroke and select the best treatment to minimise the need for surgery and healthcare-associated costs.

Lally said: “Over 50pc of strokes occur in asymptomatic patients due to the rupture of often undetected ‘vulnerable plaques’. This project, Vascoll, aims to generate the first software tool that can determine the risk of plaque rupture in a non-invasive way using a particular type of MR imaging.”

Prof Anna Davies wants to expand Share IT – an online platform designed to capture the sustainability impacts of food sharing – to include food retailers and local governments. By designing, testing and validating consultancy services, it is hoped this will enhance the sustainability of city-based food sharing economies around the world. Share IT is part of urban sustainability project ShareCity.

Davies said: “This will enable contributions towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from food sharing to be mapped, tracked, valued and supported.”

Prof John Goold will test, develop and find market opportunities for a new soil fertility monitoring and forecasting method. It is hoped this early warning and large-scale survey of soil degradation will offer a climate crisis adaptation tool for farmers, agricultural organisations and land use planners.

Goold said: “This grant concerns a highly novel application of statistical physics to address one of the most pressing issues of our times – climate-induced land change. The project is the vision of Dr Francesca Pietracaprina, a Marie Curie fellow in my group Qusys at Trinity and an expert in complex disordered quantum systems.”

Finally, Dr Matthew Campbell’s project, Opti-AAV, is focused on a new approach to gene therapy with the aim of restoring normal biological function and preventing the progression of age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness.

“This new project is really exciting in that it will enable us to undertake a cutting-edge project with potentially significant therapeutic rewards for patients in the future,” Campbell said.

Horizon Europe

This ERC funding is part of the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020. The ERC’s total budget from 2021 to 2027 is €16bn.

In 2021, 348 Proof of Concept proposals were evaluated, with an overall success rate of 48pc. This is an increase from last year’s 32pc success rate. Among the winners, 48 of the researchers were women, with an increase seen in the number of women in both applicants and grant receivers.

Those who have previously received ERC grants can apply for Proof of Concept funding in one of three rounds this year. The first deadline is on 15 February.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com