Bioeconomy expert O’Connor takes top researcher award

Professor of Microbial Biotechnology in University College Dublin (UCD) Kevin O’Connor has been named Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI’s) 2019 Researcher of the Year.

Director of the BEACON SFI Bioeconomy Research Centre at UCD, Prof. O’Connor has been described by SFI as “a leader in the bioeconomy and bio-sciences, who has achieved major breakthroughs and is helping to create strategy at national and international level to transform society and create new opportunities for rural Ireland and Europe”.

Dairy biorefinery

His work is seminal in the area of circular economy (plastics to biodegradable plastics), circular bioeconomy (dairy side stream to value-added chemical) and biotechnology (hydroxytyrosol production by a biocatalyst).

He collaborated with industry and developed technology to convert a dairy side stream into an organic acid, which was patented and licensed to industry.

It is now being scaled and implemented in a world-first “second generation dairy biorefinery” which has received over €30 million in EU funding – the largest ever EU funding for any Irish-led project.

The National Bioeconomy Campus – arising from O’Connor’s vision within the BEACON SFI Bioeconomy Research Centre at UCD – is now in implementation phase, with global food giant Glanbia located on the campus with their EU-funded flagship biorefinery (AgriChemWhey) project.

Prof. O’Connor’s work led to the formation of the Irish Bioeconomy Foundation, and the campus is now creating local employment and developing a blueprint for bioeconomy jobs in rural Ireland.

This year, he was appointed to the EC Mission Board for Climate Change Adaptation and Societal Transformation – one of only two Irish professors appointed to the EU’s expert advisory boards on major challenges.

He is also chair of the Scientific Committee for the Biobased Industries Joint Undertaking (BBIJU), a €4 billion public-private partnership where he helps shape the bioeconomy research agenda.

Prof. O’Connor has published extensively and patented technologies on the conversion of waste plastics to biodegradable plastic.

Biodegradable plastics research

In a first-of-a-kind comprehensive study of biodegradable plastics, he revealed that biodegradable plastics and their blends need to be managed to avoid marine pollution and they are not a ‘silver bullet’ for our plastic pollution problem.

Commenting on receiving the award, he said: “I am delighted and honoured to receive this prestigious SFI award.

It is a recognition of the dedication of the many researchers and industry partners with whom I work and collaborate with, across multiple scientific fields and sectors, at UCD, across Ireland and internationally.

“Through these collaborations we are creating knowledge and translating this knowledge into innovative technological solutions to address global and societal bioeconomy challenges.”