The innovation of the Irish

11 Jan 2016

Generally, Irish people have no idea how truly innovative they really are and how for its size this island punches way above its weight in the world, says John Kennedy

For an Ireland beset by floods and a world in the grip of fears of terrorist attacks you have to admit it has been a pretty gloomy start to 2016. And, of course, we have the rancid political pantomime that is the Irish General Election to look forward to in six to eight weeks.

So, if you ever need a really optimistic start to the New Year, if you ever need to feel energised, refreshed or you need a top-up on the reservoirs of hope, then you could do no better than go to the annual BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition to fully recharge.

Last week, the 52nd annual science fair took place and, once again, the young minds of students from secondary schools across the island of Ireland offered a beacon of hope and optimism in a world gone mad. More than 2,048 entries from bright young, scientific minds in 396 schools from counties north and south were whittled down to 550 entrants.

BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh pointed out that every year the numbers of entrants increases and, with space for only 550 projects allied with more students taking up honours subjects, especially honours maths, the standard gets better every time.

For seasoned visitors, as well as new visitors, the one thing that astonishes you is the sheer breadth of innovation on display, from solar-powered backpacks that can generate water to Pentaquarks and deep space travel, and apps that speed up response times by ambulances by a factor of 10.


BTYSTE 2016 winners Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura from Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan

This year the overall winners were transition year students Maria Louise Fufezan (16) and Diana Bura (15) from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, Dublin, who wowed the Young Scientist judges with An Investigation into the Effects of Enzymes Used in Animal Feed Additives on the Lifespan of Caenorhabditis Elegans, which is a nematode (roundworm) found in temperate soil environments.

Their research project could potentially shake up the global food industry.

All in all, it was a proud week for Irish innovation on a global stage.

Designed in Ireland

At the global tech fest that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, meanwhile, you could be forgiven for thinking the Irish dominated the show.

Intel revealed that a chip designed by a team of Intel workers in Ireland is going to be at the heart of its vision for the internet of things (IoT) and the wearables revolution. The team, led by Philip Moynagh and Noel Murphy, designed the low-cost Curie chip that will cost less than $10 and which will feature in R&D partnerships with ESPN, Red Bull Media and several other brands who plan to integrate the Curie chip into clothing and wearable devices to track athletes’ performances.

Music sensation Lady Gaga may also incorporate the wearable device – designed in Ireland (ahem) – into clothing and music projects that may emerge in 2016 from Haus of Gaga.

The Curie chip was named after Marie Curie, whose pioneering research into radioactivity led to the evolution of X-ray technology. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first person to win the Nobel prize twice in different disciplines.


Intel’s Curie chip, named after Marie Curie, that was designed here in Ireland

The achievement by the Intel team places Ireland on a new level when it comes to spearheading the design of future electronics goods.

It is therefore quite fitting that a chip designed in Ireland was named after Curie when you consider that at this year’s EU-backed Marie Sklodowska-Curie Awards (MSCA), held in Luxembourg in December, two out of the three award winners came from these shores. Prof David Hoey, an associate professor of biomechanical engineering in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) picked up an award for his research into developing innovative treatments for bone loss diseases, such as osteoporosis, while the second Irish winner was Donegal native Dr Aiden Doherty, who is currently a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford whose research pivots around extracting meaningful health information from complex and noisy sensor data in very large health studies.

A world of innovation from these shores in just one week

Back at CES, a Cork-headquartered company called PCH led by Liam Casey with operations in San Francisco and Shenzen, China, joined forces with global cosmetics giant L’Oréal to create a wearable UV patch that could have implications for industries like health and sports.

The My UV Patch, which will be marketed under L’Oréal’s La Roche-Posay Skincare brand, is the first-ever stretchable skin sensor available to consumers. The patch basically tells people how much UV radiation they are being exposed to. It contains photosensitive dyes that detect changing skin colour when the wearer is exposed to UV rays.

Also at CES, a pair of brothers from Louth were given a boost that could soon see them realise their vision of putting affordable 3D printers in every business and classroom. Mcor, a company founded by brothers Conor and Fintan MacCormack, saw its latest 3D printer ARKe named a CES 2016 Best of Innovation Awards Honoree in the 3D Printing Product category.

Mcor ARKe is the world’s, first full-colour desktop 3D printer and it can 3D print any object using A4 paper.

Back in Europe, another Irish company was at the business end of the march of innovation and trends like IoT. Car giant Audi has forged a partnership with Irish technology firm Cubic Telecom to deliver high-speed broadband and infotainment capabilities to cars throughout Europe.

The agreement will allow Audi drivers to get Europe-wide data plans and infotainment services using an in-car store or the myAudi web portal.

The latest vehicles from Audi, such as the new A4, come with Audi connect Wi-Fi hotspots. In May, Audi and chip giant Qualcomm made an €18m investment in Cubic Telecom to put 3G and 4G connectivity in Audi vehicles. A specialist machine-to-machine (M2M) player, Cubic’s technologies are embedded at the manufacturing stage, enabling enterprise customers to offer always-on connectivity anywhere in the world.

Also last week in Dublin, Surgacoll, a start-up that has created a bone regeneration product from technology developed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), received the CE mark, certifying it for sale throughout the EU, and it plans to create 25 new jobs in the next three years.

Surgacoll Technologies, a high potential start-up (HPSU) supported by Enterprise Ireland, intends to raise venture capital in two rounds over the next three to four years. By 2019 it aims to be generating annual sales of more than €50m in the European and US markets, employing 15 people in Ireland by the end of 2016 and 25 by 2019.

Celebrate, this party is just getting started

It was no accident that I pointed out that there is a General Election around the corner. Because in the coming weeks the nation of Ireland – which has a peculiar and fatal love affair with politics and inept, waddling politicians – will talk of little else. In fact, put three Irish people in a room and 20 minutes later there will be factions. But we have more strings to our bow.

What I have just done is give you a sense of the pace of innovation by Irish people in just one week. There isn’t a week that goes by when we at aren’t covering the exceptional achievements of Irish people in start-ups, science labs or multinationals. But seldom do these achievements merit a mention on the national airwaves.

Therefore, it was quite beautiful and timely that in between the tragic floods and the soon to be even more flooded airwaves discussing elections and false promises, that Irish young people in the halls of the RDS or at CES in Las Vegas, or on the motorways or in the hospitals of Europe, have had their moment to shine and show what true promise is all about.

The truth is that this has always been an innovative island – from saving European culture and preserving the written word during the Dark Ages to enlightening and entertaining with words, music, arts and science in the 21st century – we just need to remind ourselves of the fact.

As a population, we make more out of achievements in sports, music and Hollywood. But it is our young innovators who we also need to cherish because they are the route to job creation. Let’s not forget the achievements of the Collison brothers, John and Patrick, who have created a $5bn e-commerce powerhouse in Silicon Valley. Patrick is a former BT Young Scientist winner and, before Christmas, we reported how the company is moving its European HQ to a new building at Silicon Docks with plenty of potential to grow.

This island punches well above its weight when it comes to innovation and it should be celebrated with pride alongside feats in other fields of achievement. Just like Conor McGregor. And Bono. And Saoirse Ronan, she’s Irish too.

Trinity College image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years