Belfast Telegraph

The mind boggles

Northern Ireland has produced a plethora of inventors over the years and one award, run by the Science Park, ensures today's boffins get the support they need

By David Elliott

In laboratories, workshops and offices up and down the country some of the greatest brains in Northern Ireland are dreaming up products which would blow your socks off.

Not literally obviously - although there could be a market for such a product in certain circles - but the number of top class ideas which come from these shores is hugely impressive.

You only have to look at Northern Ireland's history of invention to see its in our genes to innovate with the likes of Harry Ferguson, Sir James Martin and Frank Pantridge leading the way.

As times have changed so has the economy and while engineering still plays a large part in local business we've also become something of an expert nation when it comes to cutting edge technology.

But commercialising those ideas can be a difficult task, particularly for early stage companies who may be caught up in the process of refining their products and don't have time to take their companies to the next level.

That where the NISP CONNECT 25k Award comes in.

Run by the Northern Ireland Science Park, it encourages the best technological brains in the country to act on their talents and turn their ideas into tomorrow's next big thing.

As the name suggests it offers a total prize fund of £25,000, £10,000 of which goes to the overall winner, but more importantly it attracts investors from around the world who could propel the right technological innovation to commercial success.

This year's winners proved once again that Northern Ireland's boffins are at the forefront of technical knowhow.

A revolutionary new class of materials produced by MOF Technologies, a team based at Queen's University Belfast, took top honours at the awards, which were sponsored by Bank of Ireland.

Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) are highly porous materials that can store, separate and capture specific gases.

In essence, they greatly increase the storage capacity of gas tanks in a tardis-like way.

A cylinder filled with this material, known as MOFs or Metal-Organic Frameworks, can store much more gas than an empty cylinder of the same size, but until now MOF manufacturing techniques have been limited as they are costly, slow and require large quantities of solvents which can be toxic and harmful to the environment.

Now, a new technique devised by the company allows the simple, environmentally-friendly production of these incredible materials, which have the potential to revolutionise applications including hazardous gas storage, natural gas vehicles, carbon capture and drug delivery.

MOFs have the highest surface-area of any known substance and a sugar-lump sized piece of MOF material can have the same surface area as a football pitch.

In fact, just one gram of MOF could actually cover up to 40 tennis courts.

The company, which is only two months old, won a cash prize of £10,000 plus another £2,500 as the winner of the Clean Tech category, sponsored by Dow.

Steve Orr, director of NISP CONNECT, said: "The 25k Award offers a showcase for regional research talent to display world-class innovations as well as providing a valuable training and development process as they move beyond the initial stages of business development.

"NISP CONNECT programmes, which are designed to inspire, encourage and nurture local technology entrepreneurs during conception, growth and improvement stages, continue that process to help them reach their goals."

Ciaran McGivern, head of Business Banking Northern Ireland, Bank of Ireland UK, added: "Developing innovative ideas that have market potential is at the core of Northern Ireland's mission to create a more vibrant private sector.

"If we are to make this mission a reality we not only need academia and industry to collaborate but we need commerciality to be part of the equation - to ensure that ideas with real potential can be developed into success stories."

Digital Media Category Winner

I-innovations, UU, sponsored by Aepona

I-Innovations Ltd is developing a patentable, non-invasive sensor device that can detect incontinence within an adult diaper and wirelessly communicate that information to a smartphone or tablet.

The device will help busy care staff, give assurance to relatives and, importantly, improve the level of care for residents, which will have great benefits for business owners trying to attract new residents to their facilities. The company plans to generate Year 5 revenue figures in excess of £25m by distributing its product via global markets.

Hi-Tech Category Winner

FireSERT Technologies, UU, sponsored by IBM

Firesert Technologies aims to provide superior safety, protection and security for people and assets by offering an innovative Fire-Blast Protection system that is designed to provide dual protection against blasts and fires at a tenth of the cost of conventional, competing systems.

The system can be used for military, industrial and civil applications and uses novel 'steel- like' behaving concrete panels which provide a superior panel thickness/blast resistance ratio as compared to existing concrete panels, resulting in significant reduction of the panel thickness to resist blast forces.

Bio Tech Category Winner

Expelliere International, QUB, sponsored by Warner Chilcott

Expelliere International Ltd has developed an ionic solution which allows a liquid to be applied to discarded pieces of gum.

The liquid, which is not detrimental to the environment, degrades the gum within minutes allowing it to be washed away within seconds.

It will help clean pavements and other areas where waste chewing gum is an issue.

Expelliere is supported by Queen's, Ionic Liquid Laboratories and Manchester University.