Stories, insights, tips and tricks. Get inspired…

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How UCL’s Disruptive Spirit is Helping to Save Lives

by | 17 Dec 2020

Since its establishment in 1826 University College London (UCL) has prided itself on doing things differently.

Exterior view of University College London
Adrian Punaks
Almost two centuries on, UCL is harnessing its renowned disruptive spirit to contribute to the global fight against COVID-19.

Adrian Punaks, UCL’s Executive Director of Development, talks to us about fundraising in a pandemic and how the University brought together a team of experts to fast track a breathing apparatus that is literally helping to save lives.

Q. As UCL heads towards its bicentenary, what is it about the University’s ethos that still resonates today?

A. UCL is an extraordinary and remarkable institution. We are part of the Russell Group in the UK, and comfortably amongst the global top 20 by whichever league table or listing you might choose to quantify quality. We don’t tend to worry too much about those metrics by the way, as the real measure is our impact on the world, which I am proud to say is plain to see and particularly so over the last year. Despite being one of the world’s great research and education institutions, we have historically always seen ourselves as perhaps a bit radical and disruptive. In 1826, when UCL was founded, to go to university in England you had to be male and a member of the Church of England and UCL was the first to challenge and disrupt some of those systemic barriers in the 1800s. It’s a heritage and history we are proud of to this day, and makes us who we are.

Q. UCL recently drew on that disruptive spirit to develop the UCL Ventura breathing aid. Tell us about the project.

A. It’s a great example of the impact UCL researchers and engineers have had in 2020, and understandably received a great deal of media attention. It’s demonstrative of a partnership between universities, hospitals, industry and government. It took the team involved just 100 hours from the first meeting of all the partners in March of this year through to the testing of the first prototype. And within 4 weeks 10,000 of the devices had been manufactured and delivered to hospitals in the UK.

To make it happen, UCL’s team of mechanical engineers and Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, together with clinicians at University College Hospital (UCLH), worked round the clock to reverse engineer a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The goal was to rapidly manufacture and deliver the device to NHS hospitals ahead of a predicted surge in hospital admissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know ventilators have been in short supply due to the overwhelming demand during COVID-19 and the UCL Ventura CPAP machine helped to bridge the gap. It helped to keep COVID patients out of intensive care and to breathe more easily, when oxygen via a face mask alone is insufficient.

To help meet international need, UCL released the designs and manufacturing instructions for free to governments, industry manufacturers, academics and health experts across the globe – making its impact truly global. The project is a really good example of how COVID-19 has provided the landscape to make decisions quickly and not get caught up in bureaucracy.

Q. In broader terms, what impact has the project had on UCL?

A. Universities often talk about impact, and I’ve already done so in this conversation, but it is a genuine source of pride to know the difference any number of UCL projects and teams are having on a daily basis in all sorts of ways; undertaking life changing research that translates to patients in a clinical setting, impacting students and of course developing the leaders of the future. The Ventura project is an amazingly powerful example of where an effective, comprehensive university with engineers, doctors and researchers working together with industry was able to fast track something that was essential, and that the world needed to keep people alive.

UCL’s role in delivering the Ventura project has raised UCL’s profile and generated a huge amount of pride amongst our staff, student and alumni communities, as well as with donors and supporters.

Q. What effect has COVID-19 had on UCL and its fundraising activities?

A. We’ve been fortunate as an institution to be in a financially stable situation, and whilst 2020 has presented plenty of challenges, we have weathered the storm despite it not always being easy.

From a philanthropic perspective, we haven’t seen a decline in income through our fundraising activity, and we feel very lucky to be able to say that. We were one of the first UK universities to launch a COVID-19 response fund, which has raised in excess of £3m from alumni, staff and friends, which is amazing. We’ve also just closed the It’s All Academic campaign, which we publicly launched in 2016, having exceeded our target of £600 million and 250,000 volunteering hours a year ahead of schedule, despite the pandemic! It’s been quite an achievement, and testament to a brilliant team, a committed community of staff, volunteers, donors and alumni around the world, and some exceptional leadership in Professor Michael Arthur, UCL’s President and Provost, who stands down in January 2021.

Q. What changes have you seen in the fundraising profession this year?

A. The pandemic has definitely had an impact on the way we work but the flipside has been that it’s provided us with a somewhat different landscape through which we can engage in meaningful dialogue with our community wherever in the world they may be. The UCL community is arguably closer and more focused on the same things than it ever has been. I’ve seen barriers break down between parts of the university that at one stage might have worked in isolation.

We of course haven’t been able to do the regular in-person alumni events, or bring people on to campus to meet students and our academic community. But the world is a captive audience now, and what we have been able to do is hold small, exclusive events with our eminent professors and star faculty to hear them talk about their work. Depending on time zones, it’s meant that we can bring alumni and friends from Asia, Africa, America and Europe together in ways we simply couldn’t before COVID.

Q. What have you learned about yourself during COVID-19?

A. I miss being with people. My natural disposition and preference is to be around other people as I get energy and innovative ideas from working with a team. I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to being back on campus with the team and my amazing colleagues at UCL, and also a time where we can begin to operate in person more than we’ve been able to do over the last year. Recent news of the vaccines gives us all reason to be positive as we end the year.

I think we’ve all learned that the world is never going to be quite the same again, and there will be many positives as a result I am sure. Not least, I think we’ve all realised the importance of our own well-being and mental health, and there’s a willingness to be open and talk about it, certainly more so than before COVID. That can be no bad thing. I’ve also seen colleagues be themselves, working from their homes – with pets, and young family members a common occurrence for us all on Teams and Zoom meetings this last year – it’s grounding and authentic, which I think is a good thing for us all.



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