First Look: the €8-million food innovation campus in Athenry, Co Galway

Lisa Kleiner’s artisan food company, Nibbed Cacao, became first leaseholder in BIA campus’s food production units

Lisa Kleiner’s artisan food company, Nibbed Cacao, which the former chef started up during the pandemic in 2020, is set to quadruple its business this year. Demand for the company’s cacao-based drinks and chocolate bars has grown at a rapid pace and to expand, Kleiner recently transferred her cacao micro-roastery and production unit from Kilcoole, Co Wicklow to Athenry, Co Galway.

The move was made possible by the opening of the BIA Innovator Campus, an €8-million Centre for Excellence for the food industry, which was officially launched on Friday morning by Taoiseach Leo Varadker. Having failed to find a suitable production unit for her business on the east coast, Kleiner became the first leaseholder in the BIA campus’s purpose-built own-door food production units.

Kleiner now has space to grow the business, which she runs with her niece Anna O’Sullivan. In addition, she has access to food scientists and is working with them to develop a product to use the husk from the cacao beans she imports from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Marketing and logistics expertise is also available on site, and along with the 12 production units, the new campus has an impressive array of facilities including four commercial production kitchens, a 60-seat auditorium and demonstration space, meeting rooms and a buyer showcase area, as well as a podcast studio and 12 co-working hot desks.

The move to the west has necessitated Kleiner spending part of the week with relatives in Oughterard, returning to her home in Greystones at the weekend. But she believes it was the only way to grow her business, and it is not just the additional physical space that helps justify the move. “As well as this, we have already had many opportunities to get our brand in front of potential retailers through organised pitches by the BIA team.”


All of the facilities on the campus, apart from the production units, are available to rent on a pay-per-use basis. The 16-station culinary training space is already being used to teach practical modules on a bakery apprentice scheme, and a programme of cooking classes open to the public will commence later in the year.

The 23,000sq ft BIA campus, which is described as being the first of its kind in Ireland, is co-located on the Teagasc site just outside Athenry town. It has been funded by Enterprise Ireland, the Department of Rural and Community Development, Galway County Council, Teagasc, Galway Rural Development/LEADER and the Western Development Commission and employs nine full-time staff.

Elaine Donohue, general manager of the campus, says: “Our focus at BIA is to help facilitate strong business and manufacturing foundations for Ireland’s micro and small food producers. Teaching good standards at an early stage will assist in growing sustainable livelihoods and achieving business goals. We have seen from Bord Bia’s most recent Export Performance and Prospects report that Ireland’s food and drink exports are now valued at €16.3 billion. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this buoyant sector and we are delighted to now officially open the campus offering affordable access to production spaces, knowledge, and innovation resources.’'

Donohue says the facilities and the supports the new hub will offer are open to everyone, not just established food businesses. For example, someone with an idea for a new food product can book space in a shared commercial kitchen to do recipe development, avail of research, development and innovation expertise, use the showcase facilities to introduce their product to buyers, and possibly pitch for space in the production units.

Expertise is being nurtured as well as entrepreneurship. “Our role is very much to facilitate what people want to do,”Donohue says. “Some people have come to us just for a sense of direction with their career. If they want to grow their career, or change direction in the food industry, we want to make sure we keep that talent, and give them lots of opportunities from which they can achieve whatever they want to do.”

Construction of the campus commenced in January 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. However, with temporary facilities provided by Teagasc, the initiative has been active for the past two years, running business accelerator programmes, masterclasses, boot camps, webinars and staging events such as the 2023 Irish Drinks Open Forum. “Since the start of 2022, we’ve been providing as much of the services as we could; a lot of that has been based around events, workshops, training and science support,” Donohue says.

Food businesses that have already benefited from the campus include Eugene and Ronan Greaney’s Dough Bros, a Galway city pizza restaurant. During the pandemic, when the restaurant was closed to diners, the brothers started a pizza kit delivery business and have expanded from food service into manufacturing for retail. The campus was able to help with developing good manufacturing process when the business owners set up their unit in Galway city. Heather Flaherty, managing director of Builín Blasta cafe, bakery and retail premises in Spiddal, has also engaged with the campus, receiving advice on planning growth and expansion plans.

The assistance given to individuals and companies that approach the campus is tailored to their specific needs. “They will decide their own path of growth over time, and they will avail of supports from different agencies around the country. But if they need help, we work with them and for them and help them get to where they need to go.” Some of the campus’s services have a cost attached, but this can sometimes be covered by a grant or available at a reduced price. “For example, with our technology team here, on the science end of it, they can get access to them for around €500 a day. But if you went out to the market, you’d probably pay about €2,000.”

Donohue believes that the campus also has a role to play in fostering community within the Irish food producers. “I have found that producers and restaurateurs, depending on where they we’re based, didn’t often get time to connect with others in the industry. They had their head down focusing on their own thing. And sometimes it’s good to lift your head, take off the blinkers and engage. Everyone is going through the same struggles and the same challenges, in different scenarios.”

Mentorship is an important aspect of the plans for the campus. Donohue points to examples where producers have invested in premises, without having enough knowledge of the specific requirements for food businesses. “They were, in essence, pouring money down a drain. Whereas they can come here, they don’t have any of the risk, they can manufacture to high standards because we were giving them best-in-class facilities. And they can lean on the campus then when they’re stuck and have that community.”

Innovation is very much to the forefront and to date, the campus has been involved in 20 New Product Development projects. Donohue sees potential for growth in the health and wellness area, and functional foods. “I think we are all talking about our health, post-Covid everyone is really health conscious. People want clean nutrition and ease of use.”

The route to access the campus is initially through the website,, where email and telephone contact details are available. “We want everybody to use this space. Our work is very much grassroots based. It’s with people, and hearing about their stories. You can’t really apply a one size fits all approach. We have big ambitions for the future, to really help, to support businesses to be rounded and to be economically sustainable,” Donohue says.

“I’m sure when everyone sees the facility, they’ll be quite jealous that isn’t actually in other parts of the country. But we have had people travel from all over to engage with us; with the new motorway it’s very accessible.”