UCD researcher awarded €500,000 SFI Future Innovator Prize for innovative imaging solution

Ireland's Minister for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, TD, has today announced that a special Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Future Innovator Prize of €500,000 has been granted to University College Dublin (UCD) researcher, Professor Dominic Zerulla.

Professor Zerulla, UCD School of Physics, and his team at PEARlabs Technologies, have received the prize in recognition of the potential impact of their project to develop a highly innovative imaging solution that enables ultra-fast video-rate nanoscale optical microscopy.

PEARlabs, a UCD spin-out company was founded by Professor Zerulla in 2018, with the support of NovaUCD, the University's Centre for New Ventures and Entrepreneurs.

The PEARlabs technology aims to transform the understanding of processes such as cell signalling and cell proliferation in cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The patented technology can therefore aid early diagnostics, precision medicine and the delivery of improved drug treatments. It also has the potential to be used as an add-on to conventional optical microscopes opening up access to 'nm resolution imaging' for many fields of science.

The prize fund will be used to further develop this solution and enable the PEARlabs team to progress their research toward having positive impact for society.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize, funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland, is part of an overall government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland. This prize challenges the country's best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end-users.

In addition to the special prize to Professor Zerulla, Minister Humphreys TD also announced Dr Alison Liddy and her project team at NUI Galway as the inaugural winner of the SFI Future Innovator Prize. Dr Liddy and her team have been awarded €1 million for their Hydrobloc project, a novel and transformative treatment for people suffering from chronic neuropathic pain.

Minister Heather Humphreys, TD, said, "Congratulations to the Hydrobloc team on winning this prestigious award and leading the way with this much needed novel and innovative treatment for chronic pain."

"Such was the potential from this Challenge Funding programme, that a special award was received by the PEARlabs team for their pioneering research in nano-microscopy."

"At this time, as we battle an unprecedented pandemic we clearly need disruptive science and technology to help us find solutions. I am delighted to support the SFI Future Innovator Prize programme and wish the winning teams all the best as they continue their journey and further develop their concepts for the benefit of society."

The UCD PEARlabs team is led by Professor Dominic Zerulla together with Dr Dimitri Scholz, UCD Conway Institute, and societal impact champion, Peter Doyle and research team members, Dr Irina Kühne, Dr John Gordon and Silas O'Toole. Their SFI Future Innovator Prize project was entitled, Enabling Next Generation Biological Imaging.

Professor Dominic Zerulla, UCD School of Physics and founder PEARlabs said, "I am delighted to receive this award, which is verification that the transformative potential of our disruptive imaging method has been recognised. Our PEARlabs technology will allow life science researchers to understand bio-medically relevant mechanisms to enable an unparalleled in-depth understanding of life-threatening diseases such as cancer and pandemic viral infections, including the coronavirus. This will in turn facilitate the development of faster drug delivery and testing."

He added, "Our journey to the SFI Future Innovator Prize was extremely exciting. Successfully getting through the rigorous evaluation process, consisting of three competitive rounds and being able to enthusiastically demonstrate our research to national and international expert panels was quite an experience. This external validation has been very important for PEARlabs, a UCD spin-out supported by NovaUCD, which is currently in negotiations with international investors and global companies."

Professor Orla Feely, UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact said, "I would like to congratulate Professor Zerulla and his PEARlabs team on receiving €500,000 in funding through the highly competitive and prestigious SFI Future Innovator Prize programme."

"Winning this funding is testament to the world-class research taking place at UCD and the innovative start-ups which are spinning out from such research activities. I wish the team every success as they further advance their nanoscale biological imaging technology which will impact society by advancing our understanding of many diseases and lead to the development of improved drug treatments."

The SFI Future Innovator Prize is part of an approach to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland to accelerate and validate excellent and innovative solutions to critical societal and global issues.

I am delighted to say that the calibre of research supported has been so high that a special award was made to Professor Dominic Zerulla and his team for their novel imaging technology."

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland

The SFI Future Innovator Prize has a strong team focus with each member bringing necessary expertise to advance the project. Teams work to tight deadlines, with the necessary supports and flexibility, in order to accelerate progression towards their proposed solutions.

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