Ireland's hottest new ideas and cool inventions
Published 26/11/2006 | 00:11
ACURE for MRSA and other killer bugs, high-tech wizardry for computer gamers, no-emissions energy generation . . . all these things - and more - are being developed at a location near you. Ireland has leapt from being a primary agricultural economy to one where the future is in the hands of thousands of researchers in white coats and geeks in slacks.
The Government has done its best to encourage innovation, though those involved insist that even more would be happening if companies could get a tax write-off on research and development. From global giants such as Google, to the smallest Irish tech firm (and all those in between), there has never been such creativity here outside of the traditional arts.
For many years Ireland has been producing chemicals and pharmaceuticals, but it has been just that - production. Now the big boys of the pharmaceutical industry are researching key new drugs here and Irish universities are producing world-class researchers.
The Sunday Independent has taken a whirlwind tour around a few of the labs dotted around the country. Read on to find out what the future may hold.
MRSA buster We have all heard about MRSA, the superbug scourge of modern hospitals. The bug, which is resistant to many traditional antibiotics, can even kill. Other superbugs may be even more deadly.
Professor Fergus Shanahan and his team at UCC are mining the bacteria in the intestine to produce a natural antibiotic that will kill MRSA and other superbugs. The intestine naturally carries about a kilo of bacteria and - contrary to the claims of those who believe in colonic irrigation - most of the stuff actually does a very good job at killing many infections before they can take a hold in our bodies.
Prof Shanahan, who has a few natty one-liners, says it is a "bugs to drugs programme of discovery". Just as penicillin came from a fungus, the new generation of antibiotics may well come from thehuman body.
The team at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre has several molecules, which are ready for serious testingto be turned into natural antibiotics. If it works, the HSE and Mary Harney will owe him one.
Free home heating Fed up with ever-increasing oil and gas bills to heat your home? Then Kingspan could have the answer. Engineers at the Co Cavan firm have invented a new system Kingspan Tec that will do away with your home heating bills.
Gilbert McCarthy, managing director of Kingspan Century, says the product is specifically designed for the Irish climate and to withstand wind-driven rain.
Called the passive house, it uses insulated panel technology to make the house airtight - giving an incredible 85 per cent improvement on energy efficiency.
Given that it is airtight, it also needs an airflow system and thus it also has a heat recovery system, which actually heats the cold air coming into the house to ensure that only warm air comes in.
At the same time, solar panels will provide the hot water. The whole system is IAB-approved for use in Ireland and certified to meet the demands of the Irish climate.
Battery-free mobiles Now that you have a fuel-free house, how about a laptop or mobile phone that never needs to be recharged?
That's exactly what Irish engineering firm Steorn claim to have invented. The technology -- which, if it is proven, will be revolutionary - uses magnetic fields to create energy, which means that it is free, clean and constant. That means cars that don't need batteries. In fact, it may be a cure for global warming.
The problem? Well it means that one of the founding laws of physics - the Principle of the Conservation of Energy (that energy can neither be created nor destroyed) - would be refuted.
That is what even scientists call a big claim and, as anyone who has even done Junior Cert science will tell you, probably a tall story. But paradigms do shift and the company advertised in the Economist in August for serious academic researchers to test their system.
The results, when they're ready, will be published. The man in charge, Sean McCarthy, says the Dublin engineering company came upon the technology by accident when it was trying to work out how to put cameras onto ATM machines. Now all 30 people at the company are working on the new technology.
He's confident it will work and is already working on a prototype mobile phone as well as pumps for African schools. He gets offers of money 10 times a day he says, but they are not taking anyinvestment until the technology has been independently verified.
Smart phone ads Or perhaps you have more prosaic worries about your mobile phone? How about only having advertising that you might even welcome delivered to your mobile phone?
Changing Worlds, which is run by Professor Barry Smyth of UCD's computer science faculty, has developed software that means that everyone's home page on their mobile phone looks different. If you are a big rugby fan then a rugby page will be highlighted there, movie buffs will have immediate access to their favourite movie websites while music buffs or those who simply want headlines or traffic will also be catered for.
You won't have to sign up for any of this or give over any personal details. The technology means that any area you look at more often than others will be easier to find.
This way, if you are identified as a music fan you will only be sent offers relating to free gigs or CDs and so on, he says. Many mobile phone companies have already signed up for the first version. But unfortunately in Ireland it is only going to be available on Vodafone. O2 and Meteor customers will be wait in vain.
Cell-based cures Other exciting medical breakthroughs are also coming courtesy of Irish researchers. Perhaps you or a friend or relative have a chronic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or Alzheimer's disease?
If so, then help could be at hand. Many researchers hold out great hope for new biotechnology drugs. Perhaps the largest company in Ireland researching biotech is the giant pharma group Wyeth at its huge state-of-the-art facility in Dublin.
The company uses actual cells in its research rather than mixing chemicals. This means that the product which you take is more akin to the general cells found in your body rather than something completely alien. Some say that this will dramatically reduce side effects.
Dr Brendan Hughes, director of development at Wyeth, says it is effectively harnessing the body's power to heal itself as the technology uses cells to produce proteins very like natal molecules.
Wyeth is in partnership with a team at DCU to produce a medicine for rheumatoid arthritis that will use the body's own anti-inflammatory agents - a process which may well result in fewer stomach problems for sufferers.
Wyeth's Irish team of 80 or more scientists also has great hopes for its pipeline of molecules. The boffins are helping Elan develop and test a possible treatment for Alzheimer's and another that will aim to combat muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting conditions.
Reactive runners The new generation of sports wear could well revolutionise the way you exercise. A team at DCU in the Adoptive Information Cluster under Professor Dermot Diamond is developing smart clothing.
First off the starters' blocks is "smart yoga wear". As yoga devotees know, when you are wrapped up against the cold it is next to impossible to know whether your breathing and posture are correct. This new suit is set to transform all that. When fully developed, it will help people practice yoga in their own home and will look great as well.
The incorporated smart fabrics being developed at the university means the fabric itself will monitor changes in pressure. Tiny transmitters will take readings from the garment to show how the moves and breathing are being performed.
Textile designer Tara Carrigy - who has worked with Lainey Keogh, John Rocha, Ali Malek and Fenn Wright and Manson - will incorporate pattern design so that the garment will not only be high tech and fully functional, but it will also look good.
The team has also developed "smart runners" that can monitor someone's steps, using fabric-based sensors incorporated into the insole of their footwear. The signals are then transmitted wirelessly to a mobile phone or laptop.
The system can be coupled with fabric-based sensors in a vest which detect breathing rate and pulse, and it will be used by researchers in DCU's School of Health and Human Performance to study fitness and the effect of exercise on different population groups.
Another part of the cluster will be making books such as The Book of Kells readable and searchable online. The project, sponsored by Google, is part of the company's quest to make all information in the world searchable.
The DCU team, led by Professor Alan Smeaton and Dr Noel O'Connor, are reknowned experts in video analysis and have applied this technology to making handwriting images searchable.
Simple virus tester Did you know there is a measles type virus that is responsible for thousands of miscarriages every year? There is, and an Irish company has developed a simple test for the so-called parvovirus B19, which is being used in France and the US - but not to any great extent in Ireland.
Irish doctors are apparently quite cautious about any new tests. Last week Biotrin, run by Dr Cormac Kilty, also unveiled a new test for a new virus only discovered in 2001 that kids get (it's similar to pneumonia). About a quarter of all kids hospitalised with a respiratory virus actually have this metapenumovirus and early treatment will help.
Or perhaps you're worried about kidney damage. Again, a team of Irish scientists at Biotrin International has discovered some markers which leak out of a damaged kidney very early on.
Dr Kilty says they are hopeful that their new biomarkers will be able to identify kidney and other organ damage long before traditional tests. That gives more time to act before permanent damage is done.
And in a mark of global respect for the Irish company, it has been chosen to monitor the effigy of the new cervical cancer vaccine in the USA.
Anti-cancer cereal And of course in a country famous for fresh food, there are also innovations in what we'll be eating at the table. Irish food company Glanbia has invented a range of foodstuffs that will not only ward off dangerous diseases but actually help cure you too.
In its state-of-the-art innovation centre in Kilkenny, research teams are constantly coming up with new and better ways to enhance food. The teams are working in numerous areas, from making high-quality protein to developing the technology to extract minerals from whey.
The latter has led to the development of a milk calcium plant to produce TruCal, a milk mineral complex, which mimics natural bone. It optimises the availability and absorption of calcium leading to enhanced bone health.
This concept is used in Petits Filous + Calcium by Glanbia Foods and in TruCal supplements in the US.
Other innovations are targeted at athletes. Proton Revive, for example, is used by the Leinster rugby team and its combination of protein and lucaicim is said to allow harder training for longer with a better recovery.
Glanbia also has a cereal-based product derived from oats, which has cholesterol-reducing properties. New products are expected to target conditions such as colorectal cancer, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
First off the mark here is Yoplait Essence - the first range of daily yoghurt boosts to treat specific health concerns from bone strength to lower blood pressure, cholesterol to immunity, weight loss to healthy digestion.