Professor Neil Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology
A new economic and environment stimulus partnership has secured funding to progress several ‘firsts’ for the Midlands, 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.
It is chaired by Rita Shah, founder and CEO of Shabra Plastics and Recycling Limited.
With support from the Just Transition Fund and its founders, it will create 97 jobs over two years through a series of innovative actions.
It 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 develop 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.
Vincent Redmond, Head of New Business in Bord na Móna, explains: ‘Empower Eco is an exciting initiative that aligns with the ambition and strategic trajectory of Bord na Móna as it pivots from ‘Brown to Green’ in order to pioneer new climate solutions for the midlands’.
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.
Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin, President of AIT, said: “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 Neil Rowan, Director of Bioscience Research Institute and Founding Director of Empower Eco, 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.”
Kieran Mulvey, Just Transition Commissioner, said: “Empower Eco will help meet innovative and inspiring plans from businesses, local authorities and communities in the midlands who are committed to creating a green and sustainable economy for the region. Empower Eco is ideally structured and positioned to meet timely training and reskilling so local businesses and communities can adjust to a low-carbon transition. Empower Eco will support and enable climate solutions across the midlands where it will also add value to many of the 47 projects provisionally funded under Just Transition Fund that totalled €27.8m.”
Rita Shah, CEO of Shabra Recycling and Chairperson of Empower Eco, welcomed the funding endorsement ‘this constitutes a landmark event for the midlands as it accelerates the development of Ireland’s first Eco-Innovation Hub, a timely development of key science, engineering and technology initiatives linked seamlessly to social enterprise, education and training in order to unlock the immence potential of the Midlands’.
Anna Marie Delaney, Chief Executive of Offaly County Council, welcomed the announcement of funding for the Empower Eco initiative and the emerging partnership between Bord na Móna and key stakeholders in STEM innovation. She said that with other partners, Offaly County Council shares an ambition to create new and sustainable opportunities that will positively impact those most affected by decarbonisation, their communities and the local economy.
Dr Michael Brougham, Regional Director, Enterprise Ireland Midlands, Mideast and West, added: “Empower Eco is one of the most exciting and far reaching projects that I have been involved in during my time as Regional Director in Enterprise Ireland. Not only will we see new sustainability companies emerge through the Accelerate Green programme but Empower eco also aims to have significant impact with SMEs throughout the broader Midlands and also nationally.”