By Ciara Browne – Deputy News Editor
This Article includes insights and personal responses from Dr. Mark O’Sullivan – Lead Investigator.
A research team led by University College Cork’s (UCC) Dr. Mark O’Sullivan in the INFANT Research Centre (Irish Centre for Maternal and Child Health) has been awarded funding by Enterprise Ireland to commercialise a medical device that could modify how clinicians are able to identify newborn brain injuries. To date, records show that brain injuries in newborns are accountable for 23% of all infant deaths and over one million cases of permanent disability each year.
The Neurobell project being led by Dr. Mark O’Sullivan is currently supported by Enterprise Ireland. Over the past decade, the Enterprise Ireland Commercialism Fund Programme has been supporting third level researchers through both financial and soft support, to translate their research into innovative and commercially viable products, services, and companies. Operating throughout the Higher Education Institutions and non-profit Research Performing Organisations in Ireland, this state funded research has the potential to result in the commercialization of new innovations. This is by way of new company creation to help Ireland grow and scale, and compete in international markets. License of that technology to companies in Ireland would further improve the competitiveness of the Irish industry.
The programme is also a fantastic opportunity for researchers, like Dr. Mark O’Sullivan, to launch their device into the medical world. Dr. O’Sullivan said that it offers “fantastic support to researchers like me, who are very interested in entrepreneurship and the commercial potential of their research. The funding provides additional support of mentorship, access to business partners, and networking events to help build and grow as an entrepreneur.”
The INFANT Research Centre is a research based centre at UCC that focuses entirely on pregnancy, birth, and early childhood. “The Centre has a multi-disciplinary team with personnel across clinic, science, computer science, and engineering domains,” stated Dr. O’Sullivan. Over the early stages of Dr. O’Sullivan’s research, he presented new research ideas and results at INFANT seminars, which was a “fantastic way to get feedback from medical staff and that helped lead the direction of the research,” for the pocket sized device. The device will allow clinicians to rapidly diagnose potential brain injuries in newborns, without requiring the specialised medical expertise, which is needed to work complex and often problematic EEG machines. From Dr. O’Sullivan’s engagement with medical staff and presenting the project at clinical conferences, they “began to realise that there was a clinical need for a portable end-to-end monitoring solution with diagnostic decision support.” Dr. O’Sullivan has previously worked on projects as Postdoctoral Researcher in the INFANT Research Centre, which involved the development of new AI models for both “fetal and neonatal diagnostic decision support. The expertise and know-how developed during that time as a Postdoctoral Researcher has certainly helped [his] understanding of the different technologies and the wider maternity field.”
Dr. O’Sullivan said that he was drawn to the specific area of engineering to begin with, which was algorithm and circuit design for battery-powered and wireless technology. O’Sullivan said that “taking something from idea through to real-world use is what led [him] to pursue engineering in college.” During O’Sullivan’s masters degree, he spent six months developing a smart hearing aid, and it is from this development he realised that he wanted to pursue a PhD in the biomedical electronic field. The INFANT Research Centre and School of Engineering in UCC had a PhD position available at the time, on a project for newborn brain waves (EEG) analysis, and Dr. O’Sullivan said that he was “fortunate” for this.
Dr. O’Sullivan stated how there is a significant gap in current clinical practice and saw how this gap could be filled with the possibility of new emerging technologies. After visiting the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Dr. O’Sullivan said it was “surreal and (he) became very attached to developing new technologies for newborns and the NICU from that experience.”
Having become interested in entrepreneurship during his PhD research, Dr. O’Sullivan engaged with the support available through UCC innovation. The first enrollment carried out by Dr. O’Sullivan was in the UCCGateway SPRINT Programme. The UCCGateway SPRINT programme helps UCC researchers to, “develop an understanding of the basic concepts of start-ups and University spin-outs, such as business and funding strategies, equity, IP, and pitching,” and after, Dr. O’Sullivan successfully applied to the IGNITE Graduate Business Programme.
The IGNITE Graduate Business Innovation Programme is a 12-month programme, hosted at UCC, that helps founders to develop new start-ups that have potential for positive economic, social and environmental impact. It is a comprehensive incubation programme for founders working full time on their start-up. It includes several essential workshops, mentoring, funding and work spaces. Since 2011, IGNITE has supported hundreds of founders from diverse backgrounds working on a range of start-up ideas. IGNITE start-ups have achieved business success and their founders have received international recognition, awards and accolades.
Dr. Mark O’Sullivan was open in saying that “these supports were a key part to the career path [he has] now pursued and led to winning awards such as UCC Entrepreneur of the Year and Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year,” and subsequently led to getting research funding from Enterprise Ireland.