Rotary Club of Dublin Lunch

Grand Canal Hotel, Dublin

25th March 2019


Mr President, Rotarians, guests, good afternoon,

It’s a pleasure to be here and many thanks for inviting me to speak.

A university’s activities are so many and varied - there is so much I’d like to share with you. But I’m mindful that this should be a short speech. So with respect to your interests, and to this locale where we’re meeting, I’d like to talk about a particularly exciting initiative which Trinity is now getting off the ground: the Grand Canal Innovation District.

You may have heard something about this because the plan to build this District - just down the road at Grand Canal Basin - was formally launched last July by the Taoiseach. Trinity is the leader in this initiative, in which we’re partnering with government and other Dublin universities – UCD, DCU and TUDublin.

The Grand Canal Innovation District, or GCID, as we’re calling it, will be Ireland’s first such District, drawing on the experience of world-leading innovation districts in Boston, Toronto and London. Like these, GCID will bring together a critical mass of research-oriented institutions, high growth companies, and tech and creative start-ups in an amenity-rich environment, deeply connected to local and cultural communities.

Before I get into describing how we envisage this district working, let me just digress briefly to explain why we’re so committed to this initiative in Trinity and how it fits into our broader plans.

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As you’re no doubt aware, state investment in higher education was cut drastically in the years of austerity and it has not returned to previous levels. This phenomenon, of retreat from public investment in higher education, isn’t just happening in Ireland; it’s a global thing.

Where does that leave universities? Reducing our ambition isn’t an option - that would be to let down our students and the country. We have to find alternate sources of revenue. Fees are part of a solution and I’m an advocate of students contributing to their education, but burdening our students with high fees, as in the US or UK, has societal consequences.

When I became Provost eight years ago, I identified, with the College Board, four things we needed to do to build up non-exchequer revenue:

  • Number one, transform our global network and our intake of international students;
  • Two: grow commercial revenue, including from innovation;
  • Three: raise research income; and
  • Four: embed a culture of philanthropy in the college community.

We’ve had significant success with these. To give a few figures around research:

Trinity researchers, who represent only 16 percent of academic staff in Ireland win over 30 percent of annual national funding for research, over 25 percent of Horizon 2020 funding coming into Ireland, and a whopping 50 percent of European Research Council grants. And a fifth of all Irish spin-out companies come from Trinity.

And just this month, we’ve launched the first comprehensive philanthropic campaign in the history of the university. Our target is to raise €400 million. The message will go out to the 150 countries where our alumni are living and the funds raised will support ambition in a number of priority initiatives, including four key capital development projects:

  • The new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute, or E3;
  • The Law School;
  • The Trinity St James Cancer Institute; and
  • The Library, including conservation of the building, books and documents and the creation of a new Manuscripts Room in the Old Library.

In addition to these capital developments, we’re prioritising investment in people:

  • Endowments to support more academic posts; and
  • Scholarships through the Access programme.

These essential projects will continue Trinity on its path of excellence. They are all investments in existing strengths. Let me say a word about the Trinity Access Programme, or TAP, because I know that many members of this Club have been generous supporters and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to thank you.

Trinity was the first university in Ireland to set up an access programme to bring more socio-economically disadvantaged groups to college. Today, ten percent of Trinity Freshers enter through our access programmes. That’s a figure well ahead of other high-ranking universities globally. Three years ago, we were invited to pilot TAP in an Oxford University college, Lady Margaret Hall. That proved so successful that the programme is now being rolled out across other Oxford Colleges.
We’re particularly proud of our success with Access. It gives opportunities to talented students who might otherwise fall through the system, and it puts focus globally on a vital issue: the responsibility of universities to make a difference to their regions and countries by widening opportunity. 

The truth is that many high-ranking universities – including Ivy League and Russell Group universities – are not very good at this. If Trinity has emerged as a global leader, it’s thanks to support from people like yourselves – Rotary Dublin’s four scholarships support a young adult and a mature student from the foundation year right through their degrees. As Cliona Hannon, the head of the Trinity Access Programme, says:

“Each student who progresses through to graduation changes their own story, changes the University’s story, and changes the stories told within their own communities.”

In making Access a priority in the Philanthropic Campaign we’re sending out a key message about the role and responsibility of universities.

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Now let me return to the Grand Canal Innovation District. It’s very much part of the overall strategy that I’ve been outlining for you. An Innovation District will be a phenomenal driver for research and spin-outs, for industry partnerships and graduate entrepreneurship.

Innovation districts work by bringing together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. Typically, they are located close to a research university in a concentrated urban environment that provides the proximity, density and scale of activities that are essential for international competitiveness. They are integrated in the local community, providing new employment and education opportunities, and are connected to cultural communities.

Grand Canal Dock is the natural home for an innovation district in Dublin because it’s where multinationals, tech companies and start-ups are already located, as well as many cultural activities – and it’s just ten-minute walk from the existing Trinity campus. Our advisors around the world are extremely excited about the potential of this area.

Trinity already has a Technology and Enterprise Centre at Grand Canal Dock where the Lir, the National Academy of Dramatic Arts, is located, as well as incubation space for companies. We are now developing this into a tech campus, the catalyst at the heart of the innovation District, with the E3 Research Institute at its centre.

The Innovation District will play a role for all Ireland, creating a nationally connected centre, promoting all types of innovation, including in the creative arts.

Today’s great technology challenges – like privacy, big data, ethics and climate - are also social challenges. So when it comes to innovation, it’s critical that we think in terms of the social sciences, law and the humanities. Trinity has the multidisciplinary strengths to address these challenges.

At a time when the availability of talent and innovation drives business investment and growth globally, we must, as a country, establish the infrastructure necessary to compete globally.

Following last July’s launch, an Innovation District Advisory Group, or IDAG, appointed by the Taoiseach, is now developing a roadmap for the Grand Canal Innovation District.

This was the structure used to enable the creation of the IFSC in the 1980s, and it should enable the rapid evolution of our vision for a globally competitive innovation district for Ireland. This has the potential to be as transformative for Ireland in technology and innovation, as the IFSC was for financial services.

A new innovation district, with a new university campus at its heart, is a vital step in enabling Dublin to be ranked as a top 20 global city for innovation. With this District, Trinity will deliver for our students, staff and graduates and for Dublin and Ireland. I look forward to telling you more about this as it develops.

Thank you.

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