‘Most people would say innovation is a contact sport’

18 Dec 2019

Dr Patrick Prendergast presents Dr Joan Cahill with her Trinity Innovation Award. Image: Luke Maxwell/Siliconrepublic.com

What’s the secret to successful innovation? We asked the winners and leaders at the 2019 Trinity Innovation Awards.

“Innovation means a lot to Trinity. Innovation is part of the core mission of the university,” said Dr Patrick Prendergast at the recent Trinity Innovation Awards.

“There was a time when we would talk only about education and research, but now we talk about education, research and innovation – taking the outputs of research into making an impact for society, which is what innovation is all about.”

Indeed, the intimate Trinity College Dublin awards ceremony presented Dr Joan Cahill and Dr Carmel O’Sullivan with Societal Impact Awards, highlighting the importance of research that can influence society.

Cahill, a senior researcher and principal investigator with the Centre for Innovative Human Systems, was recognised for her multidisciplinary work on how humans interact with machines. She describes her research as being “at the nexus of people, technology and processes” and she has worked across industries such as aviation, transport and healthcare on “human factors projects which are all about delivering benefits for individuals and for society”.

Others at the event were recognised for the challenges they’re addressing through university spin-out companies. Nexalus, for example, is tackling the dirty secret of the data-driven age. “For those who don’t know, one of the biggest problems in data centres in terms of their energy consumption is cooling of the computers. And we have IP and we have technology that can make a drastic reduction change in the amount of energy that data centres consume,” said Dr Tony Robinson.

Another young company, Head Diagnostics, hopes to bring a medical device capable of swift diagnosis for brain impairment to market. This iTremor device could enable pitch-side concussion assessment in record time.

‘You need to be able to bring together people with different perspectives, different viewpoints’

Having seen the evidence presented on the night, Provost Innovation Award recipient Sean Mitchell said that his success as co-founder of Movidius won’t be the last of Ireland’s great innovation stories.

“I think the secret of Movidius really was the team of people. It’s such a tremendous team of really, really talented, creative people who are super committed to the business, and really brave. They stuck with it and stuck with it.

“There’s lots of that in Ireland, we have it in spades, for sure, so I’m absolutely confident there’s going to be more and more,” he said.

‘Some of the challenges that we’re facing in the world at the moment, we need both academics and industry to work together’

Collaboration with industry was also highlighted at the event, with Industry Engagement Award winner Prof Michael Morris saying that this element of research and development is “pivotal”.

“It gives you a route that you can bring your research to market. So unless researchers have that capability, there probably wouldn’t be as much innovation, there wouldn’t be as many new products. And some of the challenges that we’re really facing in the world at the moment, we need both academics and industry to work together,” he said.

Morris’s fellow award-winner Dr Lorraine Byrne, executive director of the Science Foundation Ireland-funded AMBER research centre, added: “Ireland has migrated over the last 10 years from being a purely manufacturing base to being an R&D base, and the ability of companies to reach back into the university sector and do collaborative research with academics has been really pivotal in helping that happen.”

The guiding principle on the night was truly that innovation requires a multidisciplinary, cross-sector meeting of minds, skills and contributions.

“Most people would say innovation is a contact sport,” explained Diarmuid O’Brien who, as chief innovation and enterprise officer at Trinity, is leading the establishment of the university’s €1bn technology and enterprise campus in Dublin’s Silicon Docks.

“You need to be able to bring together people with different perspectives, different viewpoints. You need to connect the entrepreneur with the experienced businessperson with the venture capital and the financing. Clearly, it becomes easier if these people are co-located.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.