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New $35 million fund will accelerate the impact on society of Northwestern’s nearly $1 billion in annual research

The Pat & Shirley Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund will catalyze the commercialization of life science discoveries

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new fund will provide seed grants to Northwestern University faculty to speed up the commercialization of innovative and high-potential research in the life sciences. The Pat & Shirley Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund will advance translational research discoveries in both engineering and medicine with the potential to have a meaningful and immediate impact on society.

A gift from the Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H (’97, ’00 P) and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H (’97, ’00 P) Family created the Ryan Research Acceleration Fund, which will provide awards to successful basic research that has the potential to ultimately be commercialized and impact the world yet falls into the gap between governmental and private sector funding. The gift is part of a transformational $480 million gift from the Ryan Family to the University that was announced in September 2021. The significant academic portion of the $480 million gift is the largest single commitment ever to Northwestern academics.

“We cannot thank the Ryan Family enough for their generosity toward Northwestern, which is accelerating promising research that can improve people’s lives,” Provost Kathleen Hagerty said.

Northwestern has made efforts to improve health outcomes in the areas of drug discovery, sensing and measurement, rehabilitation, regenerative medicine, surgery and transplantation, and artificial intelligence and computation, among other fields. In the past, some of these efforts have led directly to commercial successes and health and well-being improvement, while other efforts have been built upon by subsequent research or applications that have benefited people around the world.

Northwestern has had a decade-long ascent in annual sponsored research funding from various sources to enable high-impact basic and translational work to thrive across the University. In fiscal year 2022, the funding grew to 3,581 awards totaling $923.8 million. This performance is part of a larger growth trajectory, with the University’s overall research funding increasing nearly 82% since 2012 — furthering the societal impact of Northwestern’s research and elevating the University into the Top 10 of national rankings. Researchers have made important contributions across many areas, including frequent interdisciplinary work, bringing together teams from across the life sciences, engineering, the social sciences, humanities and more.

“The boldest ideas often challenge convention and are not ready for funding by federal agencies,” said Milan Mrksich, vice president for research and the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern. “The Ryan Research Acceleration Fund will provide Northwestern investigators with support to demonstrate the feasibility of their visions and will enable Northwestern to attract even more federal funding for research that solves urgent challenges to create a better world.”

Northwestern faculty and students regularly conduct collaborative research to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. In some cases, an innovative research project needs a little boost to get off the ground. An initial research grant such as a Ryan Research Acceleration Award can help researchers begin their work and produce early results — which, in turn, can secure them major research funding to continue their efforts. These vital seed grants enable scholars to undertake promising, sometimes high-risk research that often leads to breakthroughs and additional funding.

Faculty will be able to make requests for Ryan Research Acceleration Awards by vetting their research proposal with department chairs, deans or center directors for their area before they are submitted to an advisory committee for consideration. The aim is to quickly propel a project to late-stage, government funding or commercialization.

The Ryan Research Acceleration Fund also will enable collaboration across Feinberg School of Medicine, McCormick School of Engineering and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, strengthening the ties that exist among the programs and maximizing their research capabilities.

“Northwestern’s nearly $1 billion of annual scientific research has immense potential to change the world, yet too often this potential is left unrealized because of the inherent gap between government and private sector funding,” Patrick Ryan said. “With this new fund, our family is furthering our support of scientific discovery at Northwestern and the potential impact on society. It is critical to provide the University’s world-class researchers with the funds they need to advance innovations in new devices, therapies and diagnostics, for example, that may improve quality of life.” 

Philanthropic investments

As the largest donors in Northwestern’s history, the Ryan Family has made broad and deep philanthropic investments across the institution, including academics. The Ryans have given in support of hundreds of different University programs. Among the most notable are: 

  • Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Hall is the home of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN), which brings together chemists, engineers, biologists, physicians and business experts from across the University searching for small answers to large, complex problems in areas as diverse as medicine, information technology, energy, homeland security, food and water safety, and transportation.
  • The Ryan Family also contributed significantly to lab and research space within the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center on the Chicago campus.
  • Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Family Fellowship in Nanotechnology prepares top graduate students to assume leadership roles in academia and industry. Over the last 15 years, 218 fellows have been funded from 10 different departments across multiple disciplines. Approximately half of former Ryan Fellows have gone on to careers in academia; 44% are in industry; 4% are employed at other institutions, such as governmental agencies, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and hospitals; and 2% are continuing their education.
  • The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts is the architecturally acclaimed home on the shores of Lake Michigan of the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music as well as the theater and performance studies departments and administrative offices of the School of Communication. The center was dedicated on the Evanston campus in 2015.
  • The Ryan Family Chair Challenge has dramatically advanced research and teaching at Northwestern by driving the creation of endowed professorships across the University. During We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, the Ryan Family Chair Challenge matched gifts made by other Northwestern donors to establish 25 new endowed professorships, or chairs, across a wide range of disciplines including screen and stage writing, nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. The chairs will provide a dedicated source of funds for the chairholders’ scholarly activities and underwrite salaries for these faculty and members of their research teams.
  • The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Family Scholars Program provides financial support for high-achieving, low-income undergraduate students with exceptional leadership potential. Each year, in partnership with Student Enrichment Services, the Financial Aid Office designates a diverse group of 20 to 25 incoming students as Ryan Scholars based on their community involvement, civic engagement and financial need. Ryan Scholars have the opportunity to participate in community-building activities and cultural outings throughout the academic year. Since the program began, 297 students have participated in the Ryan Scholars Program.

About Pat and Shirley Ryan

Patrick G. Ryan is a 1959 Northwestern graduate. He received his undergraduate degree in business from what was then called the School of Business and now is named the Kellogg School of Management. He also received an honorary degree from the University in 2009 in appreciation for his 14 years of service as chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. In 2013, he was inducted into Northwestern’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

Shirley Welsh Ryan is a 1961 Northwestern graduate. She received her undergraduate degree in English Literature from what was then called the College of Arts and Sciences and is now named the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, Northwestern awarded Mrs. Ryan the honorary title of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Mr. Ryan is distinguished as one of Chicago’s most successful entrepreneurs and prominent civic leaders. His first business venture while a student involved selling scrapbooks to fellow students, which paid for his Northwestern education. Mr. Ryan founded and served for 41 years as CEO of Aon Corporation, the leading global provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage. At the time of his retirement, Aon had nearly $8 billion in annual revenue with more than 500 offices in 120 countries.

In 2010, Mr. Ryan founded Ryan Specialty, a service provider of specialty products and solutions for insurance brokers, agents and carriers. The firm provides distribution, underwriting, product development, administration and risk management services by acting as a wholesale broker and a managing underwriter.

Mr. Ryan currently serves as chairman and CEO of Ryan Specialty Holdings, Inc., which completed its initial public offering in July 2021. The firm’s shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “RYAN.” Mr. Ryan is distinct in having founded and built two major New York Stock Exchange traded companies.

Mr. Ryan is a member of the Chicago Business Hall of Fame, and a member and past president of the Economic Club of Chicago. He also is a member of the International Insurance Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame, a member and past chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, a recipient of the esteemed Horatio Alger Award and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has served as a director of numerous public multinational corporations as well as many major cultural and not-for-profit organizations.

Shirley Welsh Ryan is founder of, which is used by 40 million parents and healthcare professionals annually through its video-based website and social media in every country except North Korea. Three hundred U.S. institutions of higher learning use’s free materials. Mrs. Ryan’s pioneering work to empower every infant’s fullest physical development has won numerous awards. Two U.S. presidents have appointed her to the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., which advises the U.S. Congress on disability policy.

In 2017, merged with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, acclaimed for 32 years as the number one U.S. rehabilitation hospital by U.S. News & World Report.

The Medical Round Table (P.M.R.T.), created in 1990, is the first Infant Milestone Chart of typical and atypical development to be endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (A.A.P.). All material is in accord with the leadership of P.M.R.T. and A.A.P.

Mrs. Ryan is a strong believer in the power of early infant detection, therapeutic intervention, universal accessibility, and the concept that all children can learn. She serves on the boards of University of Notre Dame, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Alain Locke Charter School and WTTW-PBS. She also has served on the boards of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Ronald McDonald House Charities; has chaired the Chicago Community Trust; and founded the Lincoln Park Zoo Women’s Board. For 46 years, Mrs. Ryan has led a Northwestern graduate-level course entitled Learning for Life.

Mrs. Ryan has been awarded honorary doctorates from Northwestern, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also has received the Chicago History Museum Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership. 

In addition to earning her B.A. from Northwestern, Mrs. Ryan studied at the Sorbonne of the University of Paris and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Ryan, the Ryan Family includes Pat ’97 JD, MBA and Lydia; Rob ’00 JD, MBA and Jennifer; and Corbett.

This is one in a series of announcements being made this fall related to the Ryan Family’s $480 million gift to Northwestern, which was announced in September 2021.