Ambitious Aims for 2020

Exciting developments on and off campus in 2015 underpin Dr Jim Browne’s vision to make NUI Galway a globally prominent University, writes Margaret O’Brien

NUI Galway has the wind in its sails. Over the past 12 months, it has attracted more EU Horizon 2020 funding for research and innovation than any other Irish University. Four of its upand- coming research leaders won European Research Council (ERC) grants, a rare feat for a University. It also confirmed its status as the only Irish University to be consistently rising in the QS World University Rankings.

While enjoying the successes, Dr Jim Browne, President of NUI Galway, has his sights set on the future.

“We are very ambitious. Over the next five years, we aim to secure our place in the top 200 universities worldwide while securing €100 million in competitive EU research funds.”

These and other goals are outlined in the recently published ‘Vision 2020’, the University’s Strategic Plan 2015-2020.

“For students, the commitment is to provide work-based learning experiences across 80 per cent of undergraduate programmes. Locally, the University plans to develop a major ‘Industry and Innovation Hub’ in order to continue to play a dynamic role in building Galway’s growing reputation for entrepreneurship and jobs. It aims to support Galway’s bid for the European Capital of Culture 2020 designation,” Browne said.

While cranes are a rare sight in Galway in recent years, NUI Galway bucked the trend by continuing to invest in infrastructure. In September 2015, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny officially launched the €25 million HRB Clinical Research Facility and Lambe Institute for Translational Research, which is on the grounds of University Hospital Galway.

Constructed by BAM Building Ltd, the five-storey building is already facilitating cutting-edge medical research, side-byside with patient care in UHG.

The Lambe Institute for Translational Research, fully owned and operated by NUI Galway, is on the second and third floor. It accommodates open and flexible lab spaces and has direct links to the Clinical Sciences Institute, home to many of the University’s medical students.

Browne said: “This development captures the essence of our work in biomedicine at NUI Galway. It allows clinicians to undertake research at the highest level, and informs that research with the daily reality of patient needs. “Once fully functional, it will be possible to run clinical trials with medtech businesses located in this region in conjunction with Saolta University Health Care Group, representing the hospitals in the west of Ireland.”

Another new facility, the Centre for Cell Manufacturing, officially opened in 2014, has already succeeded in attracting major funding to the University under the EU Horizon 2020 programme. It is the first facility on the island of Ireland to be licensed to manufacture cultured stem cells for human use.

“It further confirms the University’s leadership in world class biomedical research and positions Ireland as a strategic global leader in the new technology of regenerative medicine,” said Browne.

“When you consider our new Clinical and Translational Research Facility in combination with the Centre for Cell Manufacturing, NUI Galway is now in an excellent position to win fundingfor large clinical trials. This allows us to build cutting edge, real projects with both the indigenous and multinational, locally-based medtech businesses, leading on to clinical trials. It’s a tremendous advancement.”

Added to this, NUI Galway was chosen to host the new SFIfunded national research centre Cúram – the Centre for Research in Medical Devices – established on the campus in 2014. The prime objective for Cúram is to radically improve health outcomes for patients by developing innovative implantable ‘smart’ medical devices to treat and meet medical needs.

Not done with the builders just yet, having secured private funding through Galway University Foundation, the University recently began construction on a new Centre for Performance and Theatre.

“The centre will include a 120-seat theatre, rehearsal rooms, a workshop space, seminar rooms and office space and will build upon our current strengths in drama, theatre and film studies and in our broad understanding of performance while greatly enhancing capacity,” said Browne. “It’s all part of our plan to prioritise and develop the areas in which we excel.”

”Another achievement is the integration of the internationally recognised Shannon College of Hotel Management, with the University. “Both institutions have a long history of cooperation, but this represents a change in how we work together. Shannon College of Hotel Management, which attracts over 50 per cent of its annual student intake from overseas, will remain at its current location in Shannon, but there will be additional benefits for students, including postgraduate opportunities.

Reflecting on the past year, Browne is particularly pleased with the level of competitive funding won by NUI Galway. “We set ourselves an ambitious goal to achieve €100 million throughout the seven year lifespan of the EU Horizon 2020 programme. Having won €15 million in year one, we are already ahead of target.”

He is also pleased that the four European Research Council grants - in itself a huge achievement - were won across a diversity of sectors. Dr Eilionoir Flynn won her grant for research in the area of disability law and policy, Dr Marie Louise Coolahan, for women’s literature in English, Dr Martin O’Halloran, for biosciences and Dr Martin O’Donnell, for translational medicine.

This year has also seen the US-based Blackstone Charitable Foundation extend its campus entrepreneurship Programme ‘Blackstone LaunchPad’ outside the US for the first time, to include NUI Galway. The Foundation’s three-year, €2 million grant will establish a partnership between NUI Galway and two other Irish universities to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career option and provide over 50,000 students, with a network of venture coaches and an entrepreneurial support service.

“This initiative is designed to help undergraduates explore and bring forward ideas. By choosing NUI Galway as one of the three Irish university recipients, it acknowledges our already strong entrepreneurial ethos and gives us a great opportunity to further promote the culture of undergraduate entrepreneurship in the University,” said Browne.

NUI Galway has enjoyed many achievements of late, but has not escaped challenges. Gender equality became a highly publicised issue for NUI Galway following a court decision.

Browne said: “We are not alone among universities in having a serious problem in this area, but we acknowledge that we need to take big steps in a short space of time to right the situation. We have been actively and positively addressing this issue through a quota system since 2013, and we are determined to empower all staff to reach their full potential.”

In general, he is very optimistic about the future of the University and also Galway itself. “There’s a great buzz around ICT at present and NUI Galway’s role in the Insight Centre for Data Analytics is an important enabler for innovation in this sector. So too is the establishment of the PorterShed, as the first stage in the development of Galway’s planned Innovation District.

“This marks the first part of the re-development of a brown site near Eyre Square. The success of the Innovation District could yield hundreds of new jobs and seal Galway’s claim as an ICT hub.”

Feeding into that ambition, the inaugural Venture West Conference, held recently at NUI Galway, and supported by Galway Chamber of Commerce and the Irish Venture Capital Association, attracted over 400 delegates and clearly demonstrated the appetite for ICT start-ups in the region.

September 2015 saw the opening of Synapse, a ‘tech carnival’ run by NUI Galway computer science and information technology students.

“The students who have organised Synapse have provided a fantastic opportunity for top ICT firms to come here, exchange ideas and learn about what’s happening in the West. It all adds to the ICT eco system being actively developed here in Galway.”

Dr Browne is convinced that the ‘can do’ attitude so prevalent in Galway will continue to underpin the city’s success, one that belies its peripheral location.

A fuller version of this interview featured in The Sunday Business Post in September 2015