Equine scientist wins Enterprise Ireland’s 2012 One to Watch award

17 Jul 2012

Minister Sean Sherlock, TD, and Dr Keith O'Neill, Enterprise Ireland, present the Enterprise Ireland 'One to Watch' 2012 Award to University College Dublin's Dr Barbara Murphy. Also in the photo is a thoroughbred horse, wearing the light mask

Dr Barbara Murphy, a lecturer in equine science at University College Dublin (UCD), has today won the Enterprise Ireland 2012 One to Watch award in recognition of her work to commercialise her invention, a therapeutic light mask for horses, and to tap into a global thoroughbred market that’s estimated to be worth in excess of €60m.

Seán Sherlock, TD, the Minister for Research and Innovation, presented the award to Murphy at UCD’s Lyons Research Farm today.

Murphy, a researcher in UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, is working with Enterprise Ireland to build a UCD spin-out called Equilume around the technology.

Murphy has been pioneering a light mask for horses to advance the breeding season in thoroughbred mares so their foals are born close to their universal birthday of 1 January.

Reproductive cycle of mares

The reason thoroughbred horse breeders want to adjust the reproductive cycle of mares appears to be because the industry applies a universal birthday of 1 January to all foals. So, say if you have a horse was that was born in August, it is called a yearling just five months later, but it is still too immature for sale.

Other proposed commercial applications for the light mask include reducing extended gestation lengths in mares due to foal early in the year, treating ‘horse jet-lag’ and allowing competition horses to shed their winter coats earlier in time for the start of the show circuit.

Sherlock congratulated Murphy today and he said her story was inspirational in terms of showing how “great ideas” can be converted into products that have the potential to “revolutionise an entire industry”.

The technology

The light mask provides timed, low-level light to a single eye in horses. This will, according to UCD, limits levels of the hormone melatonin as this hormone is usually produced in darkness and inhibits a mare’s reproductive activity during winter months.

Keeping mares indoors under artificial lights has long been used to encourage mares to breed earlier.

Murphy’s technology is aiming to allow breeders to keep their mares outside in their natural environment while the special light in the mask adjusts their reproductive cycle.

And, another aim of the mask is to allow breeders make savings of around €1,400 a season per animal on the costs associated with indoor maintenance of horses – labour, bedding and artificial light.

Murphy has already demonstrated her prototype to horse breeders in Kentucky, US, and in Japan. She plans to incorporate Equilume in 2013 and to manufacture the light mask in Ireland.

Dermot Cantillon, one of Ireland’s commercial thoroughbred breeders, and owner-manager of three stud farms in Ireland and the US, trialled Equilume’s light mask this year. Based on these trials, Cantillon said the mask has enormous potential for many breeds and categories of horses.

“I have been excited since being introduced to the concept and having used the masks during this year’s breeding season, I am very confident that they will be a major worldwide commercial success,” he said.

UCD’s technology transfer team at NovaUCD facilitated the identification and protection of the intellectual property arising from Murphy’s research. Murphy was a finalist on the NovaUCD 2011 Campus Company Development Programme.

Tech transfer

Dr Keith O’Neill, director of life sciences and food research commercialisation at Enterprise Ireland, spoke about how the agency is working with Murphy to bring her invention to the market.

“She has used the funding provided by Enterprise Ireland to demonstrate that her invention works, and to cultivate contacts in the industry who can help her trial the technology. Enterprise Ireland is continuing to work with Murphy to build a spin-out company to access an initial total addressable market estimated to be in excess of €60m,” he said.

Ireland is apparently the world’s third-largest producer of thoroughbreds, with the country currently producing around 10,000 foals every year in an industry that is worth €1bn to the Irish economy.

Sherlock presented the award to Murphy at the launch of Enterprise Ireland’s publication titled Inventions & Innovations. This booklet contains details of the 117 such spin-out companies that have been built on research funded by the Government, through its agencies Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and others in higher education institutions since 2007. 

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic