What do chips in space and connected cows have in common?

16 Dec 2015

Tyndall National Institute CEO Dr Kieran Drain. Photo by Luke Maxwell

The answer is that both of the above are innovations coming out of Irish research centres. Elaine Burke reports from the 2015 Innovation Showcase.

More than 2,000 industry representatives, entrepreneurs, researchers and investors were expected to attend the second annual Innovation Showcase at the Convention Centre Dublin.

12 entrepreneurs with investor-ready big ideas pitched to the audience from the centre of the room, followed by speeches from Government representatives proudly launching their innovation strategy and a directory of R&D supports.

Surrounding the stage, though, were stands from about 50 exhibitors, showcasing the results of their painstaking research and development.

A breakthrough pacemaker powered by the heart

Take Tyndall National Institute, for example, whose CEO Dr Kieran Drain was more than willing to demonstrate a tiny pacemaker powered by kinetic energy from the heart itself.

This pacemaker is a revelation, offering a much smaller and more reliable alternative to today’s battery-powered devices, and an extended product lifetime of up to 40 years.

There’s still up to a decade of research needed to bring this device to the medical market, but that’s the time it takes to make successes from R&D.

“I think we’ve almost 50 people exhibiting today through Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland – we’ve probably got 40 different centres,” said Drain. “That’s commercialising work that’s been going on for 10, 20 years. And that’s what it takes to really make these breakthroughs.”

Chips cut out for space exploration

Talking to Tyndall researcher Dr Matthew Smith, I was introduced to the robust electronics required for space exploration.

Smith is working hard to develop transistors that can survive the extreme conditions beyond our Earth, and has so far seen chips similar to those he is working on sent into low-Earth orbit with the European Space Agency’s Proba-V satellite.

The ESA approached Tyndall to investigate and develop a gallium nitride-based (GaN-based) device that could withstand space radiation, and Smith was recently awarded his doctorate for his work on this project.

He’s hoping that the GaN transistors he is working on now will be part of the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) mission in 2022 and will help to find signs of life beyond our planet – something that would be a dream come true for astrophysics graduate Smith.

Real-time soil and water analysis

Tyndall also showcased a real-time analysis platform that uses microneedle technology and sensors to measure the level of specific nutrients in soil or water run-off and instantly feed back this information to a tablet, smartphone or what have you.

Smart cows collecting data

The agri-food sector is one of Ireland’s most important indigenous industries, which presents a great opportunity for agritech to reach the same giddy heights, and this ambition was on show at the Innovation Showcase.

For example, Connect, the research centre dedicated to developing the networks required to support emerging technology, is involved in an immense collaboration to connect cows to the internet.

This is part of the internet of things drive where any ‘thing’ – including livestock – can be equipped with sensors collecting and communicating useful data over the internet.

Blanket IoT coverage for Ireland

Dr Frank Smyth, executive director at Connect, explained how this helps to protect farmers’ investment, keeping them updated on how their cattle are doing without the need to trek into the field and check on each cow individually.

However, one of the biggest challenges in connecting everything to the internet is providing the kind of infrastructure that can support the transmission of data from a cow in a field in the middle of nowhere.

Connect is hoping to deploy a dedicated IoT network in the near future to provide for this.

“We’re hoping to make Ireland the first country that’s blanketed in IoT coverage in the world,” said Smyth.

“Essentially, that will allow new businesses, new innovation around the area of internet of things. We bascially provide the network, the backbone infrastructure, and end users and companies come along with their sensors, their devices, their things and can hook them on to the network.”

Having fun with industrial design

Amid all the incredible future-focused technology on show at the Innovation Showcase, I was happy to encounter a fun slice of innovation from graduates of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).

Fabian Strunden and Robert Wylie put their industrial design skills to work in building the Innobot, a Simon Says-style game requiring a good memory to keep up.

Even the great minds at this event found the Innobot challenging, but feedback was generally positive as the game added an element of fun to the event, which was organised by Enterprise Ireland on behalf of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, with support from IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland.

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.