Diego Oyarzun involved in Principal’s Innovation Award-winning Project

[2020] Reader in Computational Biology Diego Oyarzun is part of one of seven winning research teams named in this year's Principal's Innovation Award.

The project Diego is involved with is based in the School of Chemistry, led by Principal Investigator Dr Amanda Jarvis and titled, 'Expanding Nature’s Polymers: a platform technology for the streamlined incorporation of unnatural amino acids into proteins'. The research is one of seven projects that have been named winners of the inaugural awards, chosen for their transformative potential. Each research team receives £10,000 to develop its idea further.

Proof-of-concept work

The awards, established in May 2020, support proof-of-concept work to help develop new potentially transformative projects. They are designed to enable researchers to turn innovative ideas into ambitious, large-scale research proposals.

These seven innovative project proposals show real ambition and creativity, of the kind that can tackle today’s big challenges. I congratulate all the winners and look forward to seeing the projects’ progress.

Professor Peter Mathieson
Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Edinburgh Innovations support

The awards were coordinated by Edinburgh Innovations, whose support for staff includes help to access funding streams, working with the College Deans of Research and Edinburgh Research Office.

Excellent proposals have emerged in response to the competition, reflecting the power of Edinburgh’s researchers to have real impact, at a time when innovation is more important than ever.

Dr George Baxter
Chief Executive Officer, Edinburgh Innovations

The winning teams’ proposals range from microlasers for medical diagnostics, to using artificial intelligence to boost crop performance, to greener synthesis of industrial chemicals.

Inaugural winners

The following winners of the first Principal's Innovation Awards were announced in September 2020:

Principal Investigator Team Project
Dr Amanda Jarvis, School of Chemistry Dr Amanda Jarvis, Professor Dominic Campopiano, Professor Susan Rosser, Professor Meriem El Karoui and Dr Diego Oyarzun. Expanding Nature’s Polymers: a platform technology for the streamlined incorporation of unnatural amino acids into proteins.
Professor Dominic Campopiano, School of Chemistry. Professor Dominic Campopiano, Professor Susan Rosser, Dr Filippo Menolascina, Dr Amanda Jarvis and Dr Stephen Wallace. ChemOD@Ed – Chemistry on Demand at the University of Edinburgh: harness cross-college expertise in synthetic chemistry and synthetic biology to create rapid, innovative approaches to the ‘greener’ synthesis of target chemicals on demand for industrial partners.
Professor Peter Doerner, School of Biological Sciences.   Professor Peter Doerner, Professor Sotirios Tsaftaris, Dr Chris Wood, Dr Karl Burgess. Putting the plant in the driving seat: artificial intelligence for crop performance.
Dr Philip Hands, School of Engineering Dr Philip Hands, Calum Brown, Daisy Dickinson and Jason Norman. Liquid crystal microlasers: low-cost tuneable light sources for medical diagnostics, communications and displays.
Professor Susan Rosser, UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology.  Professor Susan Rosser and Dr Liz Flectcher. Make a step change in medicine by engineering new cell-based therapies that can simultaneously combine precise detection of a disease with a targeted treatment.
Dr Adam Stokes, Soft Systems Group. The Soft Systems Group in the School of Engineering. Soft Systems for Hard Problems: using soft materials, fluids, and biological components to design novel engineering solutions to societal and scientific problems, for example in soft robotics for safe interaction and fluidic logic control of machines.
Dr Arran Turnbull, Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre  Dr Arran Turnbull, Dr Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Charlene Kay, Dr James Meehan, Mark Gray and Professor Mike Dixon. Use personalised gene editing to target cancer cells.


The world of research funding is rapidly changing, with the Government committed to substantially improving the proportion of GDP invested in research and innovation. A major focus will be large scale, transformational sources of funding which will sit alongside more conventional sources such as those from Research Councils. Examples include the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) and the proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) based on the US DARPA model. ARPA if approved will search for “pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies”.

The selection process for projects to be funded under schemes such as ARPA is likely to be radically different to those of conventional grant funding bodies. There is likely to be very light touch peer review with authority for project selection vested in a small number of programme managers.

The projects supported will be:

  • Significant in scale 
  • Seen as potentially transformational to the economy
  • Much higher risk than conventional Research Council projects – with the consequent high risk of failure
  • Pivotal to the development of a whole new sector or technology

Related Links

Principal's Innovation Awards winners announced

Edinburgh Innovations

Diego Oyarzun's page