Over the last two years Vistamilk has hired 87 PhDs, post-doctorates and research assistants to begin different areas of industry-led research alongside eight operations personnel. Irish Country Living finds out: just what exactly is Vistamilk?

Who is employed by Vistamilk?

Teagasc researchers are employed primarily by Teagasc, but at the same time are working for Vistamilk – how does this work?

Vistamilk is not a separate legal entity but the host institute is Teagasc. Each research performing organisation (RPO, in this case Teagasc) has their own budget for the research to be undertaken and employ the necessary resources based on these research projects.

The resources are mainly PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and research assistants. In addition there is an operations team in place to look after the day to day running of the centre. All Vistamilk recruited staff work full time on Vistamilk projects.

What does this mean for Teagasc?

So why couldn’t Teagasc have started and run Vistamilk on its own?

The two main obstacles to Teagasc setting up and running such a large initiative as VistaMilk on their own were:

1 Minimal critical mass and experience in the development of agtech solutions.

2 Financial backing.

Linking with world-leading institutes in sensing and analytics but also importantly backing the ambitions with a strong budget positions VistaMilk in a very strong position to deliver not only to industry, but to the general scientific community.

What is the funding structure of Vistamilk?

VistaMilk gets exchequer funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Agriculutre (DAFM) alongside industry partners who are taking part in co-funded research projects. Vistamilk also gets in-kind contributions from industry partners. Part of the exchequer funding (SFI and DAFM) is contingent on getting a certain percentage of funding from industry partners to draw it down. Vistamilk also has a target of drawing down €14m in non-exchequer non-commercial funding. To continue into a second phase, a proposal of “one-third, one-third, one-third” must be achieved.

One-third of the proposed budget is to be generated from commercial contributions, one-third from non-exchequer non-commercial funding and the final third from the exchequer.

Vistamilk has to pay a rental fee to Teagasc for resources engaged.

A contribution towards overheads is paid to each of the RPOs, including Teagasc, involved in the project.

Commercial research

How can Vistamilk work with private companies and publish peer-reviewed science yet keep private companies involved if results are not as expected?

All research projects that involve an RPO and an industry partner are governed by a legally binding research collaboration agreement that outlines in detail the project deliverables and management of IP (intellectual property), including publications.

but how do we measure success with Vistamilk?

First, there are a series of key performance indicators (KPIs) which the centre must meet as part of its funding obligations. These are focused on scientific excellence, development of human capital, the level of external and industry funding achieved, public engagement with the centre and the development of IP. Second, every two years, the centre undergoes a rigorous international review by experts across the research areas.

At year four an application for Phase 2 will be considered which will decide if the centre will continue after the initial six-year term.

Thirdly – and most importantly – the development and uptake of new technologies by the end users (mainly farmers and industry partners) that have been developed by the centre will be the true measure of success.

How do the partners get a return on investment (ROI)?

RPOs will get an ROI based on the human capital element, scientific output and commercialisation opportunities that might arise from the inter-disciplinary research. Through knowledge exchange, the institutes also get a strong direction on the requirements of stakeholders which help inform future research prioritisation exercises.

Industry partners in most cases have research and development (R&D) work co-funded so they do not have to take all the risks associated with doing the work themselves.

Others may not be in position to do the R&D work themselves for a range of reasons such as lack of expertise or large initial investment so this gives them an opportunity to conduct R&D work. Some industry partners will look to the centre to scientifically and independently validate a product.

What does the future hold for Vistamilk?

Vistamilk is entering a really exciting phase. A key focus of the centre will be to develop knowledge and technologies in the area of sustainability and food security, as well as prosperity and societal enrichment.

Career opportunities in Vistamilk

All roles are advertised on the VistaMilk website, through each of the RPO websites and on social media. The location of the role depends on which RPO is involved with that particular research work.

In terms of a young graduate they will mainly be applying for postgraduate opportunities such as a PhD or master’s. In the case of Teagasc, all VistaMilk PhD students are hired as Walsh Scholars.

In brief:

What is the aim of VistaMilk?

Put simply, the aim of the Vistamilk research is to digitalise the dairy supply chain all the way from the soil to the consumer. The outputs of the centre are human capital, intellectual property, potential spin-out companies and, of course, scientifically sound publications. Vistamilk is working with 43 companies, which range from multinational food companies, dairy processors and animal nutrition companies to agri-tech startups, ICT companies and even animal and grass-breeding companies.

Student profiles

Ehren Dixon

Where are you from? Born in London, UK, I moved to Waterford in my teenage years before moving to Cork as an adult to pursue an education at University College Cork (UCC).

Role and institution: PhD student at Tyndall National Institute/UCC.

Current qualifications: MSc, BScEd, AMRSC.

What attracted you to work in research? I enjoyed the aspect of teaching but also yearned to learn more myself and becoming an expert in the field of chemistry. I now want to push the boundaries of the current technological limitations in my field of electrochemistry.

Main focus of your VistaMilk work: Electrochemical gas sensors; creating sensors which can detect various gas emissions from the agricultural sector, such as ammonia and methane, even at extremely low concentrations. These sensors will help accurately quantify Ireland’s gas emissions figures.

What position will you be in and where will you hopefully be working in 10 years? I still enjoy the small amount of teaching I can do at UCC. Therefore, I would love to be able to lecture at a university at some point in the future, whilst continuing my research career.

Rebecca Power

Where are you from? Kilmacthomas, Waterford.

Role and institution: Postdoctoral researcher for VistaMilk at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland, Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

Current qualifications: PhD in nutrition for cognition; research master’s in sedentary behaviour and physical activity; BA honours degree in health promotion (all in WIT).

What attracted you to work in research? I firmly believe in the saying that “your health is your wealth”, and I’ve always had a curiosity in learning about the different ways we can look after our body. Over the last few years, I have become particularly interested in understanding how the foods we eat can positively and negatively affect our health, and our cognitive health in particular. My career in research means that I have the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity by asking and trying to answer scientific questions that will help us to better look after our brain health and function, now and into older age.

Main focus of your VistaMilk work: My role at VistaMilk is to help to design and implement a nutritional intervention trial. This aim of this work is to improve the nutritional content of the human diet by developing a nutritionally superior or “fortified” dairy product for the general population. Previous work by our centre has shown that greater consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (the building blocks of our cells) and carotenoids (plant-based pigments) can improve visual function and cognitive performance. Therefore, the dairy product in our trial will be fortified with high amounts of these important nutrients.

What position will you be in and where will you hopefully be working in 10 years? The year 2020 has made me realise that anything is possible and that we should take nothing for granted. In 10 years’ time, I aim to be a leader in my scientific field. I hope that I will have helped to positively influence nutrition policy and guidelines from the evidence-based research that I have been directly involved in. I also hope that I will be viewed as a positive role model for future scientists, and that I will have helped to inspire a generation to seek and answer questions that interest them.

Katie Starsmore

Where are you from? A dairy farm in Taranaki, New Zealand.

Role and institution: Research technician, VistaMilk, Teagasc.

Current qualifications: Bachelor of science, major in agriculture, minor in animal science with Massey University.

What attracted you to work in research? I wanted to expand my knowledge on the dairy industry and meet a new network of people.

Main focus of your VistaMilk work: Investigating the effect that feeding strategies have on methane production in pasture-based dairy cows.

What position will you be in and where will you hopefully be working in 10 years? Farm sustainability advisor in New Zealand.

Alessandro Casa

Where are you from? From Schio, a little town not too far from Venice in Italy.

Role and institution: Postdoctoral researcher based in University College Dublin (UCD) and affiliated with Insight Centre for data analytics.

Current qualifications: I obtained my PhD last February from University of Padova (Italy).

What attracted you to work in research? During my master’s degree I was really passionate about what I was studying so I decided to continue my career with a PhD since it allowed me to continue deepen my knowledge about statistics and data analysis. Moreover, the academic environment looked quite attractive to me because it is dynamic and it allows me to work on different topics and explore different applications.

Main focus of your VistaMilk work: I am a platform researcher so I do not have a single and specific application area. By now I’ve mainly worked in developing novel statistical methodologies helping in the classification of milk samples coming from pasture and TMR fed cows. Roughly speaking, my research is focused on multivariate statistical techniques applied to spectroscopic data.

What position will you be in and where will you hopefully be working in 10 years? Tough question. I hope I’ll have a permanent position in academia in a university institution allowing me to work in a friendly and cooperative environment.

During my PhD I’ve mainly covered theoretical topics but, working in VistaMilk, I am discovering that I really love to work on real world problems with a potential impact on decisions, industry and stakeholders. So I hope I’ll have the chance to continue working on applied stuff, side-by-side with researchers having backgrounds completely different with respect to mine. AgriTech is such a stimulating and exciting field where several different challenges, even from a data analytics perspective, come out quite often. So it would be great to apply my statistical knowledge in such a framework.

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