10 December 2019 – Science Foundation Ireland welcomes the announcement from the European Research Council (ERC) that six Ireland-based researchers have won ERC Consolidator Grant awards, representing total grant funding in excess of €12 million. Of the six successful applicants, three are based in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), two in NUI Galway (NUIG) and one in Maynooth University (MU). This brings the total ERC funding awarded to researchers based in Ireland to €123 million under the Horizon 2020 EU Framework Programme.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland said: “Congratulations to all of the ERC award recipients announced today, they have succeeded in getting these prestigious awards against stiff competition. I am particularly pleased to see researchers that SFI supports going forward and successfully competing for ERC funding, as it reflects the high calibre of research talent in the Irish scientific community. As one of the National Contact Points for ERC funding in Ireland we are pleased to have surpassed our Horizon 2020 targets for ERC funding, with 67 awards nationally valued at €123 million. I would encourage other researchers to compete for the final rounds of funding under Horizon 2020.”

Four of the six awards were made under the Life Sciences, and Physical Sciences and Engineering domains, and all four recipients are investigators in SFI Research Centres: Professor Laoise McNamara; Dr Dimitrios Zeugolis; Professor Conor Buckley and Dr Matthew Campbell. Professor McNamara, a second-time ERC grant awardee having already been awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2011, was an SFI Investigator Programme award recipient (2015) and was awarded an Irish Research Council Laureate grant in 2018. Both Dr Zeugolis and Prof Buckley are currently funded under SFI’s Career Development Award, while Dr Campbell is currently funded through the SFI TIDA Programme.

The four STEM awardees commented on being informed of their recent success:

Professor Laoise McNamara, Professor in Biomedical Engineering at NUIG and Researcher at CÚRAM SFI Research Centre for Medical Devices

“I am delighted to receive the ERC Consolidator funding. This funding will enable my group to continue to conduct frontier research at the interface between Engineering and Biology. It will ensure that we can attract and train top-class PhD students and Postdoctoral researchers, who will contribute to Irish research and industry in the longer term. We will develop advanced models to increase scientific understanding of bone disease, with the ultimate goal of improving the success rates of therapies for osteoporosis.”

Dr Dimitrios Zeugolis, Director of the Regenerative, Modular and Developmental Engineering Laboratory in CÚRAM SFI Research Centre for Medical Devices and lecturer in Biomedical Engineering (Biomaterials) at NUIG

“I am truly honoured to be an ERC Consolidator awardee, whilst recognising that the award would not have been forthcoming without the dedication and support of my exceptional undergraduate and postgraduate students; postdoctoral and support staff; collaborators; friends and family. The development of three-dimensional cell-based products requires prolonged ex vivo culture. However, removed from their optimal tissue context for lengthy periods of time, cells lose their phenotype and function. The aim of the project is to engineer culture environments which closely imitate the tissue from which the cells were extracted, thereby, maintaining the cells’ function and shortening the culture time required to engineer the required product. Essentially, we are working on in vitro cell culture, addressing major challenges which apply across a range of disciplines, including regenerative medicine, drug discovery and cellular agriculture.”

Professor Conor Buckley, Associate Professor and Director of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering, TCD and Principal Investigator in AMBER, SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research

“The ERC award is a fantastic opportunity to accelerate our research in developing new strategies in treating disc degeneration offering new hope and insights for patients suffering from back pain. I am truly delighted and grateful to be able to build on previous funding support such as my Science Foundation Ireland Career Development Award bringing my labs expertise in injectable biomaterials and predictive modelling to a new level. This ERC award provides the necessary funding to tackle and develop innovative solutions in treating back pain which affects over 600 million people worldwide and is the single leading cause of disability in people under 45 years of age. INTEGRATE proposes a new approach to treating disc degeneration using in silico predictive modelling for patient selection and stratification for treatment with personalised novel gene activated therapeutics, thereby maximising the probability of successful clinical outcomes and improve quality of life for patients with back pain. It will also support the training of the next generation of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers and provides the framework to engage and collaborate with other world-class research labs and surgeons in Ireland, Europe and the USA.”

Dr Matthew Campbell, Assistant Professor at Trinity Institute of Neuroscience, TCD and Principal Investigator in FutureNeuro, SFI Research Centre for Chronic and Rare Neurological Diseases

“I'm delighted to have been awarded an ERC grant for my work exploring the underlying causes of the very common form of blindness age-related macular degeneration (AMD).  This condition affects up to 1 in 4 people over the age of 60 in Ireland and represents a huge societal stress for patients and their families.  While I'm incredibly proud of the accomplishments of my lab to date, this award will allow us to consolidate our position as global leaders in vision research.  It will also allow for the implementation of a dedicated clinical research project that will seek to explore the underlying causes of AMD with a view to developing the next generation of therapies for this devastating blinding condition.”

As one of the largest and most prestigious European grant mechanisms, ERC grants fund highly skilled and ambitious researchers to carry out frontier research over a period of five to six years. ERC grants are awarded after an extremely competitive review process, where excellent science is the sole criterion for success. Specifically, the Consolidator Grant is tailored to mid-career Principal Investigators who have already established themselves as research leaders but may still be consolidating their independent research team to foster the highest quality research in Europe and the world. 

The original Government target for ERC awards for Ireland under Horizon 2020 was set at €100 million over seven years (2014-2020), with a stretched target of €125 million that is already within reach; there is still one more year of the Horizon 2020 programme with four more ERC calls.