Brains, waves and automobiles: Ireland’s west coast is a scientific playground

17 Oct 2019

Image: © Voyagerix/

From energy research to brain poking, Ireland’s west coast is pioneering some of the most advanced science around.

Describing Ireland’s west coast as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ aptly portrays it as a frontier land with a long, important journey ahead. This is even more fitting when we think of its place in the latest scientific breakthroughs, many of which have spurred future work across the world.

The feat is especially impressive when you consider that the populations of its major centres – such as Galway, Limerick and Sligo – are quite a bit smaller compared to Cork and Dublin. However, this hasn’t stopped them racking up a string of achievements that put the region head-to-head with Dublin and Cork.

Among the biggest universities on the west coast is NUI Galway, with a student population of approximately 18,000. Founded 174 years ago, what was once Queen’s College Galway is now one of Ireland’s biggest sci-tech hotspots, particularly when it comes to medtech and climate tech.

Perhaps most notable is the university’s current researchers and alumni who have been instrumental in the development of soft robotic transplants in patients. Former Inspirefest speaker Dr Ellen Roche was once a biomedical engineering student at NUI Galway, where she later returned as a postdoctoral researcher for the development of a soft robotic sleeve to keep a person’s heart pumping.

Shot from underneath an arch at NUI Galway against a blue sky.

NUI Galway. Image: © Jbyard/

Oceans of innovation

More recently, Dr Eimear Dolan has continued the university’s work in the field with a soft robotic device that prevents pacemakers and other implants from being harmed by the body’s immune system.

In a similar vein, the Science Foundation Ireland medical device research centre Cúram is also based at NUI Galway and has received significant funding from the EU in the past year to enable faster access to medical devices.

It is also home to the Irish Centre for High-End Computing, which earlier this year raised funding to attempt the launch of a pioneering quantum computing project.

Not only that, but the west is certainly ‘making waves’ when it comes to renewable energy. Galway Bay is home to a number of different testbeds for renewable energy research through the Marine Institute, which recently awarded funding to nearby NUI Galway (part of MaREI, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for marine and renewable energy) and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).

Among the biggest initiatives is the €12.8m Ocean Demo project announced at the beginning of this year, which gives researchers and start-ups access to some of the continent’s leading open sea test centres, including SmartBay based in Galway.

Looking further to the north, GMIT may be a smaller institution with a population of 7,000 students, but a number of those have gone on to excel in many agritech and other STEM courses.

Among its most recent successes included one of its engineering students making the shortlist for the Innovation Arena Awards at this year’s National Ploughing Championships for a prototype drone for monitoring livestock. One of its researchers, Dr Conor Graham, also recently led a team that developed the world’s first scientific-based seafood traceability tool.

Fuelling ideas

IT Sligo is a noticeable player on the Atlantic coast, with a student population of approximately 6,000 and a, perhaps surprising, position as a leader of autonomous driving education in Ireland. While focused on the future, the institute has also contributed important research to shine a light on the island’s important milestones in the Megalithic era and Stone Age Ireland.

That’s not to say that Galway and Sligo are the only centres of science and academia on the west coast – the University of Limerick (UL) is the second largest education hub in the region with a student population of 14,000.

While not its only focus, UL, through the Bernal Institute, is well-connected with nearby Shannon Airport in its attempts to revolutionise air travel through the production of sustainable fuels as well as new electric vehicle battery technology. The Irish Composites Centre (IComp), also based at UL, has developed a breakthrough solution that turns waste plastic bottles into composites for many uses, including car parts.

UL is also host to the SFI software research centre Lero, which opened the country’s first e-sports research lab in August of this year. By 2022, the university is aiming to have a new campus open capable of hosting 2,000 students in the heart of Limerick city.

Also expecting to undergo a massive change is the Limerick Institute of Technology, which just recently announced plans to form a consortium with Athlone Institute of Technology, creating a new technological university. While it is still to receive Government go-ahead, such a move could drastically shake up the balance of academia not only in the mid-west, but the west coast as a whole.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic