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New ‘Engines’ Rev Up NSF’s Growing Portfolio of Lab-to-Market Programs

FEB 22, 2024
NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines are the latest in a series of TIP Directorate programs aiming to accelerate research translation.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
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TIP Directorate head Erwin Gianchandani.

(NSF)

The National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships is ramping up its efforts to realize the societal benefits of research advances. The TIP Directorate reached a major milestone when it announced the first recipients of its flagship Regional Innovation Engines program last month, and according to directorate head Erwin Gianchandani, there is plenty more work underway.

Though still in its infancy at just under two years old, the directorate already has a broad portfolio of both established and new programs under its purview. These programs are organized under three pillars, Gianchandani said in a webinar on the directorate’s progress last week.

“One focuses on diverse innovation ecosystems at a regional and international scale,” Gianchandani explained. “Another is trying to accelerate technology development and translation from lab to the market and to society. I want to stress that it’s lab to market and society.”

The final pillar covers workforce development and aims to train “folks at all levels — K–12, community colleges, technical schools, four-year universities, graduate schools, folks who are in the workforce today looking to maybe do a pivot,” Gianchandani said.

The ecosystems pillar includes the Engines program. The first 10 Engines span 18 states and will receive up to $160 million each in funding over 10 years.

Engine awards historic in size for NSF

The Engines program is unique within the agency for its regional approach and the size of its awards, said program director Dmitri Perkins during the webinar.

“NSF is making history in that this is the largest investment to a single awardee over a 10-year period — over a decade this would be up to $1.6 billion for all ten awardees,” Perkins said. The total number of partners involved across all projects exceeds 450, he added, and those partners range from large companies to entrepreneurs and startups, to government agencies and community organizations.

One feature that distinguished the ten selected Engines from their competition was the level of regional investment pledged by state and local governments and private capital, Perkins explained. NSF also made sure the Engines are spread widely across the country and not concentrated only in regions where the local economy is already strong, he said.

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Map of the 10 inaugural Regional Innovation Engines.

(NSF)

The regions covered by the Engines vary greatly in scale. At the Central Florida Semiconductor Innovation Engine, for example, academic institutions, government entities, and non-profit organizations will be working to improve advanced semiconductor packaging in a 5,000 square foot campus owned by Osceola County. By contrast, the Louisiana Energy Transition Engine represents a state-wide effort encompassing over 5,000 miles of oil, gas, chemical, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide pipelines.

All 10 Engines will be supported by the NSF Engines Builder Platform run by an MIT-founded public benefit corporation called The Engine Accelerator. NSF describes the platform as “an entirely new way of thinking about post-award support — a human-centered portfolio of support structures that empowers awardees with the tools, networks and capital needed to thrive.”

NSF has also made dozens of smaller development grants to help communities grow their regional partnerships, sowing the seeds for potential future Engines. Similarly, the TIP Directorate recently created the Enhancing Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity (EPIIC) program to build more inclusive innovation systems by helping more diverse institutions such as minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and technical schools participate in the Engines program, Gianchandani said.

The EPIIC program has so far awarded a total of $19.6 million to nearly 50 teams, and a new funding opportunity is open now with an application deadline of May 16.

TIP portfolio growing

Also under the ecosystems pillar, the TIP Directorate manages the Convergence Accelerator program, which funds transdisciplinary teams across the public and private sector to tackle societal challenges. The program was created in 2019, predating TIP, but is now under its purview, explained Gianchandani. To date, the program has covered more than a dozen themes, including AI, 5G, quantum technology, and food security.

Under the pillar of technology translation and development, the directorate has assumed management of NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program and its I-Corps program, the latter of which supports entrepreneurial education for students and researchers through ten hubs involving nearly 100 universities. A new I-Corps funding opportunity, intended to help fill some of the regional gaps between existing hubs, opened at the end of January with an application deadline of April 25, Gianchandani noted.

Another translational pathway offered by the directorate is the Pathways to Enable Open-Source Ecosystems (POSE) program, which supports the formation of new entities to manage, develop, and maintain open-source products.

The directorate also recently launched the Accelerating Research Translation (ART) program to help higher education institutions build the capacity to translate their basic research into solutions. So far, the program has awarded more than $100 million to 18 teams at academic institutions.

Among the directorate’s newest translation initiatives is the Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDoT) program, which explores the ethical considerations associated with new technologies. The program has $16 million in funding available, with applications due in April.

Within its workforce development pillar, Gianchandani said the directorate has made progress using STEM education research findings to inform scalable efforts to grow talent pools through K-12 and beyond. The directorate launched the Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program in 2022 to build interest in emerging technology career pathways. Inaugural awards of $18.8 million were made to 27 teams at higher education institutions in December.

Additionally, the directorate is offering entrepreneurial fellowships through a $20 million cooperative agreement with nonprofit Activate.org and has provided $5.8 million to the Council of Graduate Schools to support the collection of data to help higher education institutions recruit and retain diverse students in STEM fields.

Asked what other programs are in the works, Gianchandani encouraged people to consult the text of the CHIPS and Science Act, which defines the directorate’s scope. He also noted the directorate aims to “build out a portfolio of use-inspired and translational work” in each of the 10 priority technology areas identified in the act, with new announcements anticipated in the coming months.


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