UCD’s frontline innovations

The three companies based in UCD that have been nominated for this year’s Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation awards chat to Michael O’Sullivan about their unique innovations

Three separate companies that all had their beginnings within UCD have been shortlisted for this year’s Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Awards. The awards take an in-depth look at startup companies across a variety of categories including bioscience, energy and the environment, and information technology (IT).

The nominated companies are assessed not just by their products, but also on their business models, meaning that both a good product and good business management are necessary in order to obtain a nomination.

The first nominated company is Equilume, the brainchild of Dr Barbara Murphy of the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science. Murphy, in collaboration with Professor John Sheridan from the UCD Communications and Optoelectronic Research Centre, has come up with a novel idea that allows breeders a greater scope to manage the gestation length of mares.

The horses breeding cycle is directly correlated with sunlight hours, meaning that the breeding season can be advanced and made reproductively active at different stages of the calendar year.

Speaking about the usefulness of this project, Dr Murphy said, “We started the research based on the idea that there must be a way to provide mobile lighting to mares. The industry spends a lot of money by putting their pregnant mares indoors from the first of December under lights until 11 o’clock… The effect that we wanted was a reduction in melatonin production.”

It was already known that melatonin was the hormone that controlled the breeding cycle of horses, but what Dr Murphy and her team discovered was that rather than having mares in sheds under full lighting to reduce melatonin production; the same effect could be achieved by simply shining low level blue light directly into one eye.

This has major implications for the breeding industry since it means horses don’t have to be kept indoors, an incredibly costly activity in terms of both man hours and resources.

“The problem is, mares that are due to foal early in the year, unless they receive the right amount of light, they normally go past their due date and have a smaller than average birth weight foal.

“If they only need light to one eye then you could potentially put it onto a headpiece that a horse would wear without them having behavioural difficulties in a field at night time.”

The company has had a very successful run thus far. Since their launch in June 2013, they have sold over 1,200 units across Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Not only this, but they are planning to expand their product line to encompass broader aspects of animal health in the future, as Dr Murphy explained, “If you have a very valuable pregnant mare wearing a headpiece with a powerful battery, you can record a lot of other information about her health and status.”

The second company is OxyMem, a collaborative effort between businessman Wayne Byrne, Dr Eoin Syron and Professor Eoin Casey of the UCD School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering.

Many of us know that wastewater can be recycled and purified for use again. What many don’t know, however, is that the process of purification involves the use of aerobic bacteria, which require oxygen to function.

The current method of delivering oxygen to these bacteria is to bubble the gas through the water tank. A process that is not only costly, but ineffective and long outdated. New options have been proposed for the aeration process, but until now there had been no way to properly manage these new proposals.

In the 1980’s, the concept of the Membrane Aerated Biosome Reactor (MABR) was born. This involves the growth of a layer of microorganisms on the surface of a water tank in order to treat the water. Until now, however, there was no way to manage the biofilm growth.

Byrne was very keen to emphasise the potential of the programme. “We identified that one of the principle challenges with the technology, which had limited its development to date, was the inability to control the biosome thickness and Eoin [Syron] identified a method to measure the biosome thickness.”

When something can be measured, it can be managed. This essentially allowed OxyMem to overcome the hurdle that had been holding the MABR technology back since its conception in the 80s.

The applications for this new development are boundless and could completely revolutionise the way in which wastewater is treated. The biosome reactor provides environmental oxygen to the bacteria while providing the organic products they need from the water, allowing them to use almost 100% of the oxygen supplied to them, a major improvement on the current industrial standard.

“A newly built wastewater treatment plant would use quite the same process today and it’s incredibly wasteful. Few industrial processes would get away with up to 70% waste in a process.

“The market has been slow to innovate and essentially the wastewater treatment market hasn’t changed that much in 100 years. 100 years ago we were blowing bubbles into water in concrete basins basically to feed the bacteria that treat the wastewater and it’s what we do today.”

The company already employs 12 people and is hoping to nearly triple its staff by the end of the year while simultaneously scaling up its manufacturing operation in Athlone, County Westmeath.

Having already won an Irish Laboratory Award in 2013, the company is certainly shaping up to be a game changer. “We won Innovation of the Year and again I suppose it underpinned the innovative aspect of the application.”

The third and final company to be nominated is APC, another spin out from the School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering.

Ireland is a hotbed of pharmaceutical manufacturing. In recent years, Ireland has almost single-handedly matched the rest of the world in the sheer volume of pharmaceuticals that are exported from our shores. It makes sense, therefore, to have a company with a prime interest in cost reduction to assist the industry.

Winners of the NovaUCD 2011 Start-Up Award, APC have since gone from strength to strength, their client list growing to include many of the world’s largest and most well known pharmaceutical companies. Dr Mark Barrett, co-founder of the company, outlined the company’s mission statement.

“APC is a chemical engineering company and we work with pharmaceutical companies nationally and across the world to assist the companies in successfully delivering their medicines to their patients in a cheaper, more reliable and more safe manner.”

Despite the success the company has had thus far, they have yet to receive venture capital funding, making their growth from a company of two to 35 employees in two years all the more impressive.

The fact that they have been nominated for the award means a great deal to the company. “It’s massive recognition for the value proposition and technical innovation that we’re bringing to the pharmaceutical industry nationally and internationally.

“That level of recognition means a huge amount to our team, but also to the companies that we collaborate with in that they can see the great innovation that APC is bringing to the market.”

Certainly the nomination helps to cement their reputation as a reliable and innovative industry partner, but APC has bigger plans and judging from their meteoric rise thus far, they are likely to reach their goals.

“We’ve earmarked opportunities to start developing and supplying our own medicines so I think that’s exciting and a stepping stone for APC to become a fully-fledged pharmaceutical company.”

If all things go to plan, Ireland could have a homegrown pharmaceutical company in a few short years, the acknowledgement of APC’s business model in their nomination for this award is a clear indicator of their likeliness to succeed.

Each of the companies nominated for this year’s awards have their own individual strengths that make them incredibly difficult to compare to one another. They each represent major innovations in their own respective fields and are all just as likely to succeed.

The one common conclusion that can be drawn from these awards is that Ireland, and UCD in particular, is a hotbed of innovation across the board and more funding for startup companies may well be the key to generating employment and international recognition of Irish exploits in the future.

The Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Awards winners will be announced on Wednesday, the 9th of April

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