Tyndall Institute’s Dr Kieran Drain: ‘We turn atoms into systems’

15 Oct 2015

Dr Kieran Drain

At Tyndall Institute in Cork an army of scientists are working on tiny problems and materials that could one day have a huge impact on the world we live in, and especially on the internet of things.

Named after one of Ireland’s most successful scientists, John Tyndall, the Tyndall National Institute has more than 460 researchers, scientists and engineers pushing the boundaries of science and electronics. Achievements include five patents in 2014 alone, 10 spinouts and a turnover of over €30m.

Its CEO, Dr Kieran Drain, has a strong entrepreneurial and industry background that includes leadership positions with Nanogram, Rambus, Catacel, Sirrus and EU research association EARTO.

Key internet of things projects for Tyndall include an €82m alliance with TSSG to generate 10 internet of things start-ups.

Before we commence our interview, Dr Drain gestures at a mural on the wall that illustrates the junctionless transistor breakthrough achieved at the Tyndall Institute in 2011 by Prof Jean-Pierre Colinge.

“Some of these things aren’t apparent to the man on the street but, in keeping with Moore’s Law to put higher amounts of electronics in smaller and smaller devices, the impact can be immense.”

Dr Drain, who hails from Fermanagh, speaks with an American accent that is the result of his time working as CEO of some of the biggest electronics players in the US.

“It wasn’t just big companies but my life path took me from big companies and into start-up companies. At start-ups, you get a sense of the greater adventure and the unconstrained opportunity that exists.”

His decision to lead Tyndall Institute is part of that great adventure. “We are not reporting to Wall Street but we do have to earn our money. The research services we sell and the inventions that we make fund Tyndall. But you do certainly have the art of the possibility in a place like Tyndall because we are constantly charting new grounds. While it’s not entirely blue sky research – believe it or not John Tyndall was one of the first to explain why the sky is actually blue – we are big-challenge inspired in that we link to an enterprise opportunity or societal challenges.”

Big sky vision for a sensor-filled world

Dr Drain describes the Tyndall Institute as a vertically-integrated organisation where fundamental breakthroughs by researchers can be quickly grasped and commercialised by colleagues who are closer to the end market.

“We have a phrase ‘atoms to systems’ where we have people who are thinking about electronic theory at a fundamental level.

“We are able to extract those things and move forward to something unique in society that the man on the street can understand.

“What this means is challenging Moore’s Law to achieve higher functionality of electronics and lower cost electronics, which results in the ability to deploy electronics everywhere, the ability to move from connecting humans through their cellphones to connecting machines and things through sensors.

“Advance computers used to be something that sat on desks, now they are out there in the farmer’s fields as sensors that throw up information such as nutrient levels in the soil, helping the farmer to schedule fertilisation, maximise feeding of cattle and maximise pasture output to drive the whole food chain.

“Most people would wake up and say ‘microelectronics is not my field’ but you should have seen the buzz we created at the Ploughing Championships in Rathaniska a few weeks ago!”

Dr Drain says that the Tyndall Institute is the sum of all its parts. He says the same is true for the research tapestry of Ireland that when working in concert can punch above its weight globally.

“When I look at Ireland we have a lot of really bright spots on the landscape, lots of very functional, high-level institutes and research centres.

“The key for us is joining the dots. For example, the sensor network I mentioned in the farmer’s field. We can create the hardware that can tell you the phosphorous content in a particular part of the field, but the analytics driving the farmers’ decision-making came from the TSSG at Waterford Institute of Technology and taking action on that data is driven by Teagasc.

“When you start joining the dots, that’s when you create something powerful and something exportable. Agriculture is the biggest piece of Ireland’s natural economy and something that we can export worldwide,” Dr Drain concludes.

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