Plastics have huge positive impacts on our lives by reducing food waste, providing a reliable and secure supply of the goods we consume, making our homes more efficient, and providing affordable and safe medical care. Their ubiquity, however, is having a detrimental impact on the world in which we live through enduring pollution of our lands, waters and food supplies, through their unknown health impacts, and through significant emissions associated with their production and disposal. 

The SFI Plastics Challenge seeks innovative STEM-led solutions that will enable the sustainable use of plastics in a circular economy; that will restore and preserve our oceans’ health; and that will maximise how we use the Earth's finite resources. It is proposed to incentivize outcomes in three specific areas: 

  • Remove: address challenges associated with removing polluting plastics from value chains, from waste streams or from the environment. 
  • Replace: address challenges associated with making plastic usage sustainable, such as identifying bio-based or gaseous feedstocks (raw materials), or developing novel materials with desirable functional and end-of-life properties. 
  • Recover: address challenges associated with recovering value from end-of-life plastics, such as depolymerization to regenerate feedstocks, upcycling waste to higher value products or innovations to transform current recycling processes. 

Acknowledging the impact associated with the use of plastics in the execution of SFI’s funded research, the development of solutions that directly address the challenges of removing, replacing or recycling plastics in Ireland’s research laboratories is encouraged. 

Under the partnership between the Department of Foreign Affairs and SFI, teams may apply to this challenge that are focused on delivering impact in countries where Ireland’s official development assistance is directed. Specific information is available on the SFI-DFA Partnership here.

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. 

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-month timeframe after the end of Prize Award phase. 


Funding (Direct)

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Applications must be submitted through SFI’s Grants Management System SESAME. The deadline for submission of applications to this call will be 22nd October 2020 (13:00 Dublin Local Time). Full details of this application procedure can be found in the SFI Future Innovator Prize SESAME Guide.

Applicants should carefully review the following call documentation including eligibility information before preparing an application. Applicants must use the templates provided below and adhere to all guidelines.