Two University College Dublin Teams Named Among Finalists for the €1 million SFI Future Innovator Prize

Two University College Dublin Teams Named Among Finalists for the €1 million SFI Future Innovator Prize

 - Ministers Humphreys and Halligan announce a total of six finalists

Two University College Dublin (UCD) teams are among the six finalists in the €1 million SFI Future Innovator Prize competition.

The six final teams, announced today by Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and John Halligan TD, Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, aim to address a number of societal challenges through the development of novel and potentially disruptive technologies.

The six final teams, led by academic researchers, were selected following a rigorous and highly competitive process overseen by an international expert review panel. A novel aspect of the prize is the requirement for a Societal Impact Champion to be part of the leadership team.

The Societal Impact Champions are drawn from a range of disciplines and stakeholder groups such as industry and civil society in an effort to support convergent and collaborative problem-solving. Their role is to provide a strong societal perspective for the team as they develop their solution.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys TD, said, On behalf of the Government, I want to congratulate the six teams who have made it to the second round of the Future Innovator Prize competition. We launched the initiative last year to encourage bright minds across the country to work together to identify major challenges facing Ireland’s society, and to propose creative solutions. It is very exciting to see so many innovative ideas coming through and I look forward to seeing their ideas develop further over the coming months.”

Associate Professor Dominic Zerulla, UCD School of Physics, is leading a team which is seeking the prize to address the challenge area entitled, ‘Enabling Next Generation Biological Imaging’ through a project focused on real‐time imaging of nanoscale biological processes via plasmonically enabled nanopixel arrays.

Associate Professor Dominic Zerulla said, "We are thrilled to have made the final round of the SFI Future Innovator Prize. Our application is based on our most recent research which has resulted in the development of an entirely new way of imaging, far beyond the diffraction limit of light, called PEAR. This novel technology can accelerate an in-depth understanding of biomedically relevant mechanisms and has the capability to support diagnostics and therapy.”

He added, "Winning the Innovator Prize would enable us to further develop our novel methodology. This we believe will play a disruptive role in deepening our understanding of nature to permit the unravelling of currently invisible bio-medically relevant processes in areas of cancer and Alzheimer’s research, but also in genetics, proteomics and materials science.”

Associate Professor Zerulla’s team in the UCD School of Physics is further supported by Dr Dimitri Scholz, Director of Biological Imaging, UCD Conway Institute and societal impact champion, Peter Doyle.

Professor Wenxin Wang, UCD School of Medicine and UCD Charles Institute of Dermatology is leading a team which is seeking the prize to address the challenge area entitled, ‘Harnessing Gene Editing to Treat Rare Diseases such as Epidermolysis bullosa (EB)’ through a project focused on a disruptive, non‐viral gene editing platform technology for treating genetic conditions.

Professor Wenxin Wang, “I would like to say on behalf of myself, my co-applicant Dr Nan Zhang and the entire team that we are honoured to have reached the final six of this inaugural SFI Future Innovator Award.”

“The societal challenge we are seeking to address with this award is the incurable and debilitating rare genetic butterfly skin disease known as Epidermolysis Bullosa or (EB) for which there are currently no effective treatments.

“Our work will focus on the development of a curative gene editing therapeutic technology to improve patient quality of life and reduce premature mortality. The translation of this technology would have a profound impact not only for patients of EB, but moreover could be adapted to treat a wide variety of genetic disorders.”

“To address this challenge, we have assembled a team encompassing multiple scientific disciplines from material science, mechanical engineering, genetics and dermatology. The convergence of knowledge from these disciplines maximises our team’s potential for success in bringing this technology from bench to bedside.”

“Of course, the work of our Societal Impact Champion, Debra Ireland, on such a collaborative project cannot be understated. Dr Sinéad Hickey, research manager of Debra Ireland, is a key team member in particular for addressing the non-technical challenges and building relations between scientific researchers and their stakeholders and beneficiaries.”

“I truly believe that our technology has the capability to disrupt the current treatment strategy for genetic diseases and place Ireland at the forefront in a field with significant global implications.”

The other members of the team include; Dr Irene-Lara Sáez and Jonathan O’Keeffe-Ahern, UCD School of Medicine and UCD Charles Institute of Dermatology, Dr Nan Zhang, UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and Dr Sinead Hickey Research Manager, DEBRA Ireland.

Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan TD, said, “It is heartening to see the excellent standard of the six teams who have progressed to the second round of the SFI Future Innovator Prize competition. Their passion for their fields reflects their dedication to improving Ireland’s economy and society through research, collaboration and inventiveness. I am confident that they will continue to impress us as the competition goes on.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said, “I congratulate the six finalists on making it to the next stage of the SFI Future Innovator Prize competition. This programme by its very design, is highly competitive and seeks to fund excellent research that aims to produce a tangible impact for society.”

“Proceeding to this phase of the programme is a great achievement, and the motivation of the teams demonstrates the appetite and capacity of the Irish research community to help contribute to solving major national and global challenges. Congratulations to each team on their hard work and dedication.”

In addition to the 2 UCD finalists, the 4 other final teams are from Dublin City University (DCU), NUI Galway (NUIG), University College Cork (UCC), and Tyndall National Institute (TNI) respectively. The finalists involve of a number of national agencies, hospitals and world leading SFI Research Centres.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize competition aligns with the Government’s Future Jobs Ireland initiative, beginning to prepare for jobs of the future now through ensuring that our economy is well positioned to tackle obstacles and continue transforming for the better.

The overall winning team will be announced in December and will receive a prize award of €1 million, providing the opportunity to deploy an innovative solution with potential to deliver significant impact to Irish society.


4 June 2019

For further information contact Micéal Whelan, Communications Manager, UCD Research and Innovation, t: + 353 1 716 3712, e: or Lisa Ardill, SFI, e:

Editor’s Notes

The SFI Future Innovator Prize, funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland, is part of an overall government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland.

Challenge-based funding is a solution focused approach to funding research that uses prizes and other incentives to direct innovation activities at specific problems. The SFI Future Innovator Prize challenges the country’s best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end-users.

Science Foundation Ireland is the national foundation for investment in scientific and engineering research. Science Foundation Ireland funds oriented basic and applied research in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) which promotes and assists the development and competitiveness of industry, enterprise and employment in Ireland. The Foundation also promotes and supports STEM education and engagement and creates awareness and understanding of the value of STEM to society and to the growth of the economy.