Belfast Telegraph

How a trip to NASA led to an out of this world career for Armagh-born Sinead O'Sullivan

Armagh-born Sinead O'Sullivan has worked for the space agency and the UN. A keynote speaker at Digital DNA, she talks to Yvette Shapiro about her next move

By Yvette Shapiro

Sinead O'Sullivan was destined for a career in space technology. As a student at Southern Regional College in Armagh she won a competition to attend NASA's space school in the United States.

"I'd always had a big interest in space and aviation, and I really enjoyed physics and maths," said Sinead. "I was lucky to get the chance to go to NASA, but I never imagined that in the future I would be working with them."

After graduating in aerospace engineering from Queen's University in 2011, Sinead took a brief detour into the financial sector, but "hated it" and quickly got back on the scientific track, working on a project with the European and Brazilian space agencies, then completing a course with the International Space University in France.

Sinead then moved to the United States to carry out research for NASA and the US Navy at Georgia Institute of Technology, known as Georgia Tech, one of the world's leading scientific institutions. Along with teams of international innovators, she was working on "advanced concepts", radical new ideas for future missions.

Currently based in Boston where she's a research fellow at Harvard, Sinead specialises in drone and satellite technology and its potential use by governments and aid agencies to deal with large scale humanitarian disasters.

"In my spare time I'm lead for the Space Generation Advisory Council's research group on space technologies for disaster management," she said.

"In Nepal, for example, the agencies couldn't get anyone on the ground and they couldn't get satellite images of some of the affected areas for up to two months. By the innovative use of drone and satellite technology, aid can be much more effective. Aid that is poorly directed is not much use and tens of millions of dollars of resources can be wasted or misdirected.

"We're working with the UN and homeland security agencies on this technology and it has huge potential."

Earlier this year, Sinead founded a company, AviOptix, to commercialise some of the ideas she has generated along with her team of colleagues at Georgia Tech. She sees further opportunities for the technology in the agriculture, oil and gas sectors.

"It's a technology that is developing very rapidly, there are advances every week. That's exciting, but it's also stressful because no sooner do you nail down a concept than it changes or there's new legislation.

"I've already raised a substantial amount of investment and I'm in the process of raising my series A venture capital funding now," added Sinead.

"Being from Northern Ireland helps, as there's a lot of goodwill towards Irish tech entrepreneurs here in the States, and being female is also an advantage because as there are so few women in the sector, people tend to remember you. I recently attended a drones conference and I was the only female CEO there."

Sinead is keen to encourage Northern Ireland science graduates to exploit opportunities worldwide and to help grow the tech sector at home.

"My company is sponsoring students from Southern Regional College to take part in the NASA space school and we're also looking at opportunities to get NI students involved in our current project and others," she said.

"I do a lot of mentoring with Queen's students - they're exceptionally smart in technology, computer science and engineering. They're open minded and great at collaboration. Northern Ireland is a really good place to find people who are entrepreneurial and who can connect to make things happen. The downside is that they don't advocate well enough for themselves.

"In the United States, graduates are always telling you how great they are. If our graduates and entrepreneurs could sell themselves more effectively, they would go a long way."

Sinead is a keynote speaker at Digital DNA and is looking forward to meeting companies in the fast-growing local tech sector.

"The tech scene is great in Northern Ireland. It's a really good way to spur on the economy. The opportunities are there, you've got the right people and it's a really good environment to launch start-ups. Plus, people from overseas are finding that Northern Ireland is a really good place to do business," she said.

Belfast Telegraph