Local economy jobs boost courtesy of environment stimulus partnership

Professor Neil Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at AIT, with his PhD and postdoctoral researchers, l-r, Dr Emma Murphy, Bianca Simonassi, Dr Robert Pogue, Gustavo Fehrenbach, Latif Adams, Jack Eakins, Emer O’Neill, Brian McEvoy, Dr Mark Lynch, and Kevin Masterson

Professor Neil Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at AIT, with his PhD and postdoctoral researchers, l-r, Dr Emma Murphy, Bianca Simonassi, Dr Robert Pogue, Gustavo Fehrenbach, Latif Adams, Jack Eakins, Emer O’Neill, Brian McEvoy, Dr Mark Lynch, and Kevin Masterson

A new economic and environment stimulus partnership has secured funding to progress several ‘firsts’ for the Midlands region that will mobilise the next generation of green-enterprise innovators and stimulate regional job creation.

Empower Eco was formed in the early days of Ireland’s March lockdown as a collaboration between Athlone Institute of Technology, Bord na Móna, Enterprise Ireland, Offaly County Council, LEO Offaly, Limerick Institute of Technology, Maynooth University, and Kilcormac Development Association.

With support from the Just Transition Fund and its founders, it will create 97 jobs over two years through a series of innovative actions and will establish the Midlands first social enterprise business model that integrates natural resources, enterprise, biodiversity, community, and social innovation with lifelong learning.

In 2021, it will launch a ‘Food for Good’ range from Ireland’s peatlands to include a bell heather honey and the development of exotic gourmet mushrooms in agroforestry. More food products are also in the pipeline.

The social enterprise will benefit ex-Bord na Móna workers, the unemployed and underemployed in the Midlands region who will be trained in biodiversity, design thinking, food production and employed through the social enterprise. The project combines AIT’s bioscience expertise under the leadership of Professor Neil Rowan, the food and culinary experience of AIT’s Faculty of Business and Hospitality under the direction of Michelle McKeon-Bennett, Dean of Faculty, and Maynooth University’s specialisms in design, social innovation, climate and biodiversity. Also, a first, Empower Eco has secured funding to devewlop and launch Ireland’s first dedicated sustainability business accelerator. Accelerate Green, supported by Bord na Móna and Enterprise Ireland, will establish a pipeline of investible propositions in the sustainability and climate action sector.

It will act as a platform for high potential scale-ups in bioplastics, nutraceuticals, high-added-value agri-food and other high potential natural resource areas. Fittingly, the project will be based in Empower Eco’s headquarters, a repurposed eco-enterprise innovation and training hub in the Bord na Móna complex in Lough Boora.

These premises are the first phase of Empower Eco’s larger enterprise and innovation space ambition. In a further job creation approach, circular economy start-up entrepreneurs and communities will be supported to qualify and test their ideas in an immersive environment.

In yet another first, the Empower Eco system will cluster Ireland’s first connected regional ecosystem of sustainability, enterprise and eco-innovation projects in the Midlands. Building a community of 25 eco enterprise projects, testbeds and living labs through a connected web portal will make it easy for bodies such as IDA, Enterprise Ireland, researchers and educators to market the Midlands as a hotspot of eco-innovation, project collaboration, research and investment.

With the announcement of provisional funding by Minister Eamon Ryan, Dept of Environment, Climate and Communications, of €907,000 under Strand 2 of the Just Transition Fund, Empower Eco is now on its way to deliver a future-proofed regional enterprise, sustainability and training stimulus in response to unemployment, environmental and economic renewal challenges.

“I welcome this very exciting news and congratulate all partners involved. It symbolises an ambitious, transformative initiative for the Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology as we also transition to becoming a new Technological university. Empower Eco, the sustainability imperative, is about using the natural world in clever ways to meet human needs. Post Covid-19, our region and our country has an even greater urgency to deal with these challenges,” Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, President of AIT, said.

“Empower Eco will provide an intellectual and innovative powerhouse for the Midlands that will actualize its immense potential for creating a greener future, in addition to helping with our immediate transition to move beyond Covid-19 pandemic. The project, which will support peatland innovation along with important carbon sequestration, represents the culmination of a life-time academic journey that has been underpinned by the activities of my 26 PhD students across many exciting collaborative projects spanning three decades of pollination and eco-system service management to circular economy activities,” Professor Neil Rowan, Director of Bioscience Research Institute and Founding Director of Empower Eco, commented.

 

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