Eight Ireland-based researchers have each been awarded an average of €1.5m in European Research Council (ERC) funding following the inaugural call for proposals, which come under Horizon Europe, the ninth EU funding programme for Research and Innovation.

Global challenges

Unveiled in late February 2021, the ERC Starting Grant funding will fund transformational research in frontier science, leveraging top-tier, early career talent from across Europe and beyond to address global challenges.

With a 24% increase in applications compared to the 2020 call, the 2021 ERC Starting Grant was the most competitive in ERC history, attracting more than 4,000 applications. Female researchers won 43% of grants, an increase from 37% in 2020 and the highest share to date. Six of the Ireland-based awards were won by female researchers. 

Spanning across all ERC domains, the eight Ireland-based awards represent a strong start in Horizon Europe after the success achieved through the last H2020 framework programme and reflects the exceptional standard of research talent in Ireland.

As the National Delegate and one of the National Contact Points for ERC funding in Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) congratulated the awardees on winning this world-renowned award against stiff competition, with researchers in SFI Research Centres and Individual-led SFI research programmes successfully competing for ERC funding.

Dr Ciarán Seoighe, deputy director general of SFI said: “The 2021 ERC Starting Grants were the most competitive in history so it is particularly impressive to see Ireland double its number of awardees from 2020 to 2021 in this highly prestigious programme.

"Horizon Europe is a critical part of the funding landscape across all disciplines. Many congratulations to the eight awardees of the ERC Starting Grants. I hope Ireland-based researchers will continue to compete successfully across all programmes in the years ahead.”

The new laureates will conduct their pioneering research across University College Cork (3), University College Dublin (2), University of Limerick (2) and Maynooth University (1). 

Dr Maria Aburto, a former Marie Curie Individual Fellow at the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, and a Funded Investigator at the APC Microbiome SFI Research Centre, hosted by University College Cork (UCC), said: “The ambitious RADIOGUT (Radial Glia as Neurodevelopmental Mediators Of Gut Microbiota Signals) project aims to explore how our gut microbiota (the trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut) influences host brain and behaviour during perinatal life, which is a critical window of time when the brain and the gut microbiota develop simultaneously.

"I am delighted to receive this prestigious funding award from the European Research Council to lead this innovative high-impact science program to tackle an important unsolved and unexplored scientific question.”

'Independent research group'

Dr Eoghan Cunnane, a senior researcher at the School of Engineering, University of Limerick (UL) and co-founder of the startup company Class Medical, said: “I am thrilled to receive this award and to begin establishing my own independent research group.

"It is a great honour for me to join the ranks of principal investigators on this island that I have admired for so long. This ERC funded project will allow me to continue working in the field of urological research on the increasingly important topic of male infertility.”  

Dr Sarah Guerin, a molecular modelling researcher at SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals at UL, said: “I am delighted to be awarded this grant and am excited to establish a world-leading research group in Ireland.

"The acceleration of eco-friendly piezoelectric technologies will be of huge importance to the Irish economy while greatly reducing the environmental impact of electromechanical sensing technologies worldwide. I look forward to attracting diverse talent to the west coast and pushing the boundaries of materials science research.”  

Dr Piotr Kowalski, a biomedical researcher leading a research group based at UCC’s School of Pharmacy and a Funded Investigator at the APC Microbiome SFI Research Centre, said: “I am thrilled by the support from the ERC allowing me to pursue transformative and impactful research tackling unmet health challenges. RNA-based drugs are a new class of biologics on the path to becoming a major platform in drug development, as evidenced by the recent success of the mRNA-based vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.”