In December 2016, Roisin Owens received a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Following her 2011 Starting Grant and her 2014 Proof of Concept Grant, it is therefore the third time the ERC rewards the quality of the projects she leads at Mines Saint-Étienne, in France. Beyond a funding source, this is also a prestigious peer recognition, since only around 300 Consolidator Grants are awarded to researchers each year. We have asked Roisin Owens a few questions to better understand what a new ERC grant means for her and her work.
How do you feel now that you have been awarded a Consolidator Grant by the ERC?
Roisin Owens: I feel more confident. When I was awarded the Starting Grant in 2011, I thought I had been lucky, as if I had just been in the right place at the right time. But now I don’t think it is luck anymore. I think there is a true value in my work. Of the 13 researchers who evaluated my project proposal answering the call for the Consolidator Grant, 12 have qualified it as “outstanding” or “very good”. I knew the idea was good, but I also knew the grant was very competitive: there are some world class scientists in the running for it!
What does the Consolidator Grant gives you that the Starting Grant did not?
RO: The Consolidator Grant brings a better scientific recognition. The Starting Grant rewards future potential and supports a young and promising researcher. So if you have a good idea, a good thesis and some scientific publications you can be eligible. For the Consolidator, you need to have already been published at least ten articles as a postdoctoral researcher or project leader — principal investigator. This means that this grant is dedicated to researchers who already have some scientific credibility, and for whom the ERC will consolidate a mid-career position.
How did your research take consistency along the ERC grants you received?
RO: The Starting Grant allowed me to start my work in bioelectronics. Since I am a biologist, I wanted to develop a set of technologies based on conducting polymers to measure biological activity in a non-invasive way. This is what I did in the Ionosense project. With the Consolidator, I want to go deeper. Now the technologies are functional, I will try to answer questions that have never been even asked yet, because researchers did not have access to the tools to do so.
Read more about the scientific work of Roisin Owen: When biology meets electronics
Which tools do your technologies give to researchers?
RO: When scientists work on cancer or on the effects of microorganisms on our biological system, they have to use animal experiments. This takes time and is expensive, notwithstanding the ethical concerns. Furthermore, the mouse is not necessarily a good model of the human organism. My idea is to perform in vitro modelling of biological systems that accurately reflect human physiology. To do this, I mimic the human body using complex 3D microfluidic systems that recreate fluid circulation in organs. Then I include electronics to monitor a variety of effects on this system. For me, it is a way of adapting technology to the reality of the biology. Currently, the opposite usually happens in laboratories: researchers force biology to adapt to the equipment!
Do you think you could be at this point in your research if you had not been awarded your ERC grants?
RO: Definitely not. First of all, the Starting Grant opened doors for me. It gave me some credibility and the possibility to build partnerships. For example, when I got the grant, I was able to recruit a postdoctoral fellow from Stanford, a top university in the US. I am not sure I could have recruited that person without the Starting Grant. ERC grants are the only ones in Europe to give you such independence. They provide 1.5-2 million euros for five years! This means you don’t spend so much of your time looking for money for research, and you can really focus on your work. The alternative would be to go through a national funding process, like those of the French national research agency [ANR], but this is not at the same scale: we are talking about 400 000 euros per project.
Between your Starting Grant and your Consolidator Grant, you received a Proof of Concept (POC) Grant. What was it for?
RO: It is small grant compared to the others: 150 000 euros over a single year. This one is dedicated to researchers who already have had another ERC Grant. As its name suggests, it provides you some extra money to generate a proof of concept. If one of the technologies you have developed during your first grant shows some commercial potential, you can then explore this with a view to a more concrete application. In our first project — Ionosense — one part of the project looked promising in terms of commercialisation. With the POC, we were able to make a prototype. Now we have patented a technology for in vitro toxicology tests, and we are currently in negotiations with a company to produce the prototype. For me, it is very important to find applications for my research that could be useful for society, since my work is funded through taxes paid by European citizens.
Since we are talking about it: what are grants specifically used for?
RO: Essentially, to build a team. We are carrying out multidisciplinary work, so we need a wide range of expertise. I have a large expertise in multiple fields of biology, and I am starting to acquire a good knowledge of electronics, but I can’t cover everything. To help me, I have to recruit young, talented people, passionate about key topics of my project: microfluidics, analytical chemistry, 3D modelling of cellular biology, etc. Since I recruit them when they just have finished their thesis, they are up to date with the latest technologies. It is also important for me to hire young researchers and to train them, to stop the brain drain towards foreign countries.
Every scientist who gets an ERC Grant is doing valuable work. But with three ERC grants awarded to you, there is something more than quality. What is your secret?
RO: First, I am a native English speaker. I was born in Ireland, and was bilingual in Gaelic and English at an early age. This is a big advantage when you write project proposals. I also like to take time to let my ideas nurture and blossom. The ERC projects I submited were not just written in a few weeks before the deadline. They are well thought out over multiple months. I also have to thank the Cancéropôle PACA who provided financial support for me to consult with an advisor on project building. And I have to admit I truly have a secret weapon — two actually: my sisters. One is an editor for a Nature journal, and the other works on communications in museums. Every time I write a proposal, I send it to them so they can help me polish it!
 In 2016, 314 researchers have been awarded a Consolidator Grant over 2274 projects evaluated by the ERC (success rate : 13.8%). In 2015, 302 researchers have been awarded the same grant over 2023 projects (14.0%). Source : ERC statistics.