Driving STEM-led innovation to address society’s greatest challenges

In the recently published All-of-Government Climate Action Plan to Tackle Climate Breakdown, SFI has been given responsibility to develop challenge-based approaches to address complex and long-term challenges in climate action. In immediate response to this, this call of the SFI Future Innovator Prize Call will have the challenge theme Zero Emissions.

Applications will be accepted from teams seeking to address significant challenges in achieving net-zero economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Applications should propose the development of disruptive STEM-led solutions (and that fall within SFI’s legal remit) that will accelerate progress towards achieving this ambitious goal. Please see the call document below for additional information on the thematic area.

Applications should consider the need for teams to have complementary technical skills to ensure successful challenge definition and solution development/deployment. Furthermore, consideration should also be given to the broader challenge/solution context which may require input from experts in disciplines outside of STEM such as the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS).

Following application review, successful applicant teams will be awarded funding of €20k to undertake team building, scoping and concept validation activities. They will then undergo a rigorous interview and shortlisted teams will be provided with €200k to further validate and prototype their proposed solutions. Finalists will ultimately compete for one overall prize award of €2M to further develop and deploy their solution. In addition, a Bonus Prize Award of €1M may also be made for solutions with transformative potential in the area of Negative Emissions Technologies.


In parallel to this Future Innovator Prize Call, SFI is exploring top-down challenge calls which will focus on developing and deploying transformative solutions to specific challenges related to climate change. We will be engaging with a wide stakeholder group during this process, but welcome ideas already at this stage, which you may send by e-mail to challenges@sfi.ie. Please provide only a brief description and justification.  

Please note that, under a partnership between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and SFI, additional teams may be funded that are focused on delivering impact in countries where Ireland’s official development assistance is directed. For more informtion on this partnership see SFI-DFAT Partnership: Future Innovator Prize 2019.

Challenge funding differs in two important ways from more traditional forms of research funding:

  • Challenge funding sets out a specific issue to be addressed at the outset – the challenge. Challenges should be visionary, inspirational but achievable and have transformative potential if successfully addressed. Challenges are identified/defined through collaboration between innovators, stakeholders, beneficiaries and end-users.
  • Challenge funding focuses on delivering solutions. To find the most innovative and impactful solutions, challenge funding uses a highly competitive process to incentivize innovators including stage gated release of funding, tight delivery timeframes and a final prize.

The SFI Future Ireland Innovator Prize supports a “bottom-up” approach to challenge definition. This approach is different to other challenge funds or prizes where a challenge is defined at the outset in a so-called “top-down” way. The Innovator Prize is intended to support the development of novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant societal challenges. In this context, it makes sense to enable those same innovators to approach the definition of challenges from an unconventional perspective also.

Ireland’s advanced, agile and highly networked innovation ecosystem means that challenge-based funding can amplify our innovation capabilities to create sustainable, equitable and innovation-led growth. This has the potential to not only drive societal and economic impact here in Ireland but also give Ireland a unique advantage in addressing challenges that have global implications.

The Irish Government has recognised the importance of addressing global and national challenges and has actioned the use of challenge funding approaches in this regard, in both the science strategy, Innovation 2020 and Government’s National Development Plan 2018-2027 (Project 2040).  In Project 2040, four key funds were announced committing €4bn to disruptive technologies, climate action, rural development and urban regeneration. The plan aims to achieve ten National Strategic Outcomes (NSOs), built on the overarching themes of wellbeing, equality and opportunity.  The National Planning Framework (NPF) also highlights the significant alignment between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the government has committed to support, and the NSOs. Areas of alignment include climate action, clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, economic growth, reduced inequalities and innovation and infrastructure, as well as education and health. A number of these NSOs and SDGs will only be addressed by fostering innovative solutions based on cutting-edge scientific research including those, for example, in energy and the environment.

The challenges to be addressed by the SFI Innovator Prize should have transformative impact potential if successfully addressed; foster innovative collaborations between researchers and stakeholders; and be enabled by novel, interdisciplinary and convergent STEM-led solutions. In identifying a challenge, the following criteria should be considered:

  • Visionary – A Challenge should be visionary drawing on insights relating to current trends and future possibilities where Ireland could benefit significantly.
  • Inspirational – A Challenge should be inspirational and provide the basis for strong engagement between public and private sector stakeholders, and with the Irish public. Challenges should highlight and address barriers to innovation, which, if overcome, can create significant benefits for Ireland. You may wish to consider how your challenge idea is going to inspire those involved and others to be involved? How will this challenge support engagement between the public/private sectors and with the general public? What current barriers are associated with this challenge and how they might be addressed, as well as, what resources would be required to address them?
  • Achievable – A Challenge should be ambitious in terms of its potential impact but should also be achievable allowing outputs and outcomes to be delivered within a prescribed timeframe. Challenges should be enabled by novel, interdisciplinary and convergent STEM-led solutions. You may wish to consider how your challenge idea is ambitious? What will the impact of this challenge be should it be successfully addressed? Who are the beneficiaries of this challenge? How will they benefit? Why will it require a novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-led solution? How can it be achieved in the timeframe? What resources are needed? What is the opportunity and why now?

The overarching ambition of the SFI Future Innovator Prize is to enable the development of disruptive STEM-led solutions to key national challenges. This is underpinned by several specific objectives:

  • To support development of novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant national and global challenges.
  • To support the formation of high-performance interdisciplinary teams based on integration of diverse STEM disciplines and complementary skillsets.
  • To promote convergence of knowledge, practice and methods from different disciplines and sectors.
  • To promote engagement between researchers and stakeholders/beneficiaries of research.
  • To accelerate societal impact from publicly funded research.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize is intended to support highly motivated interdisciplinary challenge teams committed to addressing key national challenges of transformative impact potential.

Applications will be accepted from a core leadership team comprising academic researchers (established, postdoctoral) and postgraduate students (MSc/MEng, PhD) from eligible research bodies.

Given the complex and multi-stakeholder nature of challenges and the strong emphasis that the prize places on delivering solutions, teams must encompass a range of technical (both scientific and engineering) and non-technical skills to address various barriers associated with challenge definition and solution deployment.

If you believe you have a clear, profound or perhaps unconventional understanding of a complicated societal challenge or issue, and you believe that a STEM-led solution has transformative impact potential, then you should form a team and submit an application.

Applications will be accepted where the Lead Applicant and Co-Applicant (where applicable) satisfy the following eligibility criteria:

  • Be a member of the academic staff of an eligible Research Body (permanent or with a contract that covers the period of the award)


  • Be a contract researcher with a contract that covers the period of the award (contract may be subject to receipt of the award)


  • Hold a PhD or equivalent. Please consult the SFI Policy on PhD Equivalence for further information.

Applications to the prize must identify a core applicant/leadership team comprising:

  • Team Lead (Lead Applicant) - It is expected that the Team Lead will have responsibility for managing the activities of the team, will provide technical leadership and have overall responsibility for delivery of research programme objectives.
  • Team Co-Lead (Co-Applicant) - It is expected that the Team Co-Lead will provide technical leadership as part of the research programme but should not have the same technical/disciplinary background as that of the Team Lead.
  • Societal Impact Champion - It is expected that the Societal Impact Champion will play a key advocacy role and assist in maximising the societal impact of the solution. They will provide non-technical leadership and support the lead and co-lead to identify and validate challenges in addition to advising on solution development.  Importantly, it is envisaged that the Societal Impact Champion will play a crucial role in identifying barriers and developing strategies to overcome them.

To support participation by young innovators, the Co-Applicant (Team Co-Lead) can be a postgraduate student (i.e. a full-time student undertaking a postgraduate qualification, e.g. MSc/MEng, PhD, by research in a STEM discipline registered at an eligible Research Body). In such cases, they are exempt from the criteria above.

As indicated in SFI’s Gender Strategy, SFI is committed to removing and mitigating any existing or perceived factors that may limit the participation of women in STEM careers, and to redressing the gender imbalance amongst SFI award holders, of which 26% are female. Consequently, female candidates are strongly encouraged to apply to this programme.

Following successful application, selected core teams will have the opportunity to build a broader challenge team during the Concept Phase of the programme. This will include identification and recruitment of additional collaborators (e.g. researchers, beneficiaries, end-users, industry stakeholders or students) and planning or defining activities they will undertake as part of the challenge team.

Interdisciplinarity and Diversity

The Prize is intended to support close collaboration between researchers and solution beneficiaries so that relevant, meaningful and important challenges can be identified and validated. In this context, it is expected that the solutions are developed in collaboration with beneficiaries to maximise their societal impact potential. The inclusion of this expertise should serve to assist teams to navigate non-technical issues relating to challenges and solutions such as stakeholder engagement and barrier identification. It may also enhance the technical skill set of the team with non-technical skills such as innovation and entrepreneurship.

Challenge teams should be strongly committed to applying interdisciplinary and convergent thinking to develop unconventional approaches to the identification of challenges and to the development of novel, potentially disruptive, solutions. Given the focus of the prize on solution delivery, the technical capabilities of teams should include design and prototyping.  Final deployment of a solution should occur within a 12-24 month timeframe after the end of Prize Award phase.


Funding (Direct)

Duration (Months)










Bonus Prize



Before applying to the programme, please download and carefully read the Prize Handbook. Applications to this call of the SFI Future Innovator Prize must be submitted through SESAME, SFI's online grants and awards management system in advance of the application deadline of 13:00 on the 23rd of September 2019. Full details of this application procedure can be found in the SFI Future Innovator Prize SESAME Guide.

A short pre-recorded webinar (approx. 15 min) outlining the Zero Emissions Challenge and how to apply is available here.

  • Call Launch: 28 June 2019
  • Application Deadline: 23 September 2019, 13:00 Dublin Local Time
  • Funding Decision: November 2019
  • Concept Phase Review: March 2020
  • Seed Phase Review: Q4 2020
  • Prize Award: Q1 2021

To assist teams in developing their challenge concepts, we have created two canvases intended to facilitate the ideation process. The first canvas (Challenge Canvas #1) is intended to be used to identify a broad challenge idea and to focus on the key characteristics of a challenge (i.e. visionary, inspirational, achievable etc.). The second canvas (Challenge Canvas #2) is intended to facilitate more detailed scoping of the challenge. Please note these canvases do not need to be submitted as part of your application.

Challenge Canvases