Major Foundation Grant to Support Entrepreneurial Researchers at UW

The Washington Research Foundation (WRF), a private nonprofit group that funds research and initiatives to commercialize innovations in the state, is making a large, long-term grant to University of Washington efforts in data science, clean energy, protein design, and neuroengineering.

Four programs will share in upwards of $30 million over five years, WRF CEO Ronald Howell tells Xconomy, though final budget details are still being worked out.

UW professors and research leaders say the WRF funding will help programs that span some of the campus’ strongest departments become even better. The main focus is attracting and retaining elite faculty and post-doctoral researchers who work across multiple disciplines, with an emphasis on entrepreneurial researchers adept at advancing scientific discoveries from laboratory to society.

“WRF is the grand connector,” says Thomas Daniel, professor in biology, computer science, and bioengineering, and co-director of a new UW Institute of Neuroengineering to be created with this funding. “It connects these efforts by our program, industry, existing federally-funded research programs, and education, training, and discovery. By doing that, it’s creating not just an amazing post-doc program, but actually a fabric of interaction that the UW has never seen before.”

Considering that the UW attracted about $1.42 billion in federal research funding in the last federal fiscal year, $30 million over five years may sound like a relatively small pot of money. But federal grant funding typically offers little flexibility to hire strategically, pursue riskier research, and support commercialization. The WRF grant provides just that kind of flexibility and UW vice provost for research Mary Lidstrom expects it to have an out-sized impact.

“So much of the funding that comes into the University of Washington is very targeted grant funding, and you can’t really deviate very much,” she says. “This is about going out and hiring the best people to do great things under this umbrella.”

The WRF board worked closely with Lidstrom and other UW leaders to identify programs that were already strong and capable of becoming or remaining superlative with this kind of support. Also, “they’re interested in areas that at least have the potential to spin out technology and startup companies,” she says.

The funding program, currently being called WRF Cluster Hire Packages, can be used differently by each of the winning groups. They are:

—The eScience Institute, a university-wide push to put modern data analysis tools in the hands of researchers in virtually every discipline, buoyed last year by a major grant from the Moore and Sloan Foundations;

—The Institute of Neuroengineering, a new effort co-directed by Daniel and Adrienne Fairhall, associate professor in physiology and biophysics, which will take a reverse engineering approach to understanding how neural systems accomplish complex tasks;

—The Institute for Protein Design, begun in 2012 with a focus on creating novel proteins with potential applications in vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, clean energy, and materials; and

—The Clean Energy Institute, inaugurated late last year by Gov. Jay Inslee and backed with $6 million from the state.

The WRF, which is at a turning point as one of its historic revenue streams comes to an end, has reexamined its giving practices over the last two years, says CEO Howell. These multi-year grants represent a significant change in approach.

Washington Research Foundation CEO Ronald Howell.


“We can put a few hundred thousand dollars a year, after some careful due diligence, into individual research projects. Or we can take a much bolder strategy to work with the universities to find out what are the nexus points of inter-disciplinary work that build on the excellence which is already here,” Howell says. “If we were to help them recruit stellar people, from graduate students to post-docs, and permanent junior and senior faculty, we would expand the playing field.”

The best recent example of the kind of cluster hiring WRF envisions happened in 2012, when four experts in machine learning and related fields were recruited to the UW in quick succession, helped by a $2 million endowment from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and resulting in national attention for the computer science department. “That stimulated our thinking,” Howell says.

A key piece of the funding package is the creation of a WRF Translational Postdoctoral Fellows program.

Clean Energy Institute (CEI) director Daniel Schwartz says this has the potential to support ongoing technology commercialization in ways that federal and even industry funding often cannot. While corporations support both fundamental and translational researchers, their dollars often come with strings attached.

“The company funder will typically want to license valuable IP (and sometimes hire the people involved),” Schwartz, a chemical engineering professor, says in an e-mail. “Industry grants and contracts are great—I’m keen to help grow more of them in CEI—but they are different than the WRF program that seeks to foster successful tech translation regionally.”

He adds, “Energy-focused investors in the region should expect to hear from CEI about ways we can partner to connect WRF post-docs with your community.”

Daniel, the neuroengineering researcher, says the goal is for these postdoctoral positions to be nationally competitive with the likes of the prestigious Miller Research Fellowships at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bauer and Rowland fellows programs at Harvard.

The WRF funding will also help strengthen ties to outside research groups.

For example, WRF funding will go hand-in-hand with funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to create a new Center of Excellence for Nature Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas based at the UW, which Daniel is directing. The goal is to develop new algorithms and devices informed by a deep understanding of how neural systems process information. For example, researchers will seek to improve flight controls by exploring how birds acquire and process wing-strain information.

The Clean Energy Institute is forging a closer collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, based in Richland, WA, through several joint hires in areas including advanced manufacturing of solar inks and the integration of energy storage with the electrical grid. “Hiring five or more people jointly will accelerate the kind of trafficking activity we all ought to want, namely, the trafficking of ideas, students, and professionals across the Cascades,” Schwartz says.

Likewise, biochemistry professor David Baker already has made collaboration with outside researchers a major focus for the group he heads, the Institute for Protein Design. Still, such collaborations will increase thanks to the funding, says Lance Stewart, the institute’s senior strategy director.

The WRF funding will allow the institute to work with other UW departments and local researchers to identify worthy project ideas in protein design. Fellows will be recruited for specific projects, and will be appointed to the outside labs, while still receiving training and support from the institute. In this way, they will serve as liaisons who can spread protein design expertise to researchers focused on areas such as cancer, cell biology, and materials science, Stewart says.

Doing that sort of collaboration with funding from the National Institutes of Health would require months of grant-writing and waiting. The WRF support “provides a rapid way to fund some of these activities,” he says.

The WRF money will also help finance new physical spaces at the UW, including seed funding for a scale-up facility at the Clean Energy Institute to make prototype devices that demonstrate novel technologies in solar and energy storage, and the WRF Data Science Studio, described by computer science professor Ed Lazowska in an e-mail as “a hub for inter-disciplinary collaboration.”

Lazowska, who has led a successful data science push at the UW over the last several years, calls the WRF investment “a game-changer for us.”

“It’s the key to uniting the other pieces we have assembled,” he says.

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