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May 17, 2022 | Tom Ballard

Virtual meeting on NSF’s “Regional Innovation Engines” program provides additional insights

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Based on more than 2,500 individuals pre-registering for yesterday’s virtual event, several of our readers probably were among those who watched the Zoom-based session providing additional details on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Regional Innovation Engines” program.

As outlined in this post from about two weeks ago, the NSF initiative is focused on the development of  regional efforts, both sub-state and multi-state, that will cultivate and sustain activities in: (1) use-inspired research and development; (2) translation of the resulting innovations to practice through entrepreneurship, stakeholder development, and meaningful partnerships; and (3) workforce development at all levels including experiential learning leading to researchers, practitioners, technicians, innovators, entrepreneurs, and others.

There are two types of proposals.

  • Type-1, described as development awards that provide seed funding to enable awardees to lay the groundwork for establishing a new NSF Engine, with the goal of catalyzing an innovation ecosystem for a specific topic area. Type-1 awards are intended to allow teams to prepare for the submission of a successful Type-2 proposal. The duration of a Type-1 award is up to 24 months, with a maximum proposed budget of $1 million.
  • Type-2 which are intended to support awardees representing a geographical region of service that are primed to stand up a regional innovation ecosystem. Type-2 awards provide funding for up to 10 years, with a total maximum budget of $160 million.

A seven-person team from the federal agency addressed various aspects of the program and then took questions from attendees via the chat feature on Zoom. Both were recorded, and those recordings will be posted on the NSF Engines website later today. Those interested in submitting applications in one of two areas were also encouraged to consider participating in one of five roadshows. Click here for that list.

Those who also watched the event made their own notes. Here are the high-level conclusions we drew.

  • With $160 million available over 10 years, there will be a lot of competitors. That reality will only be exacerbated by the fact that 469 applicants, including eight from Tennessee, who prepared “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” proposals under the U.S. Economic Development Administration solicitation, failed to make the cut. They have already put a good deal of effort into those plans that would presumably fall in the Type-2 category. That said, NSF said it expected to award up to five Type-2 proposals from this initial round compared to as many at 50 Type-2 submissions. The competition on both fronts will be extremely challenging.
  • On several occasions, panelists emphasized the importance of: (1) addressing compelling national and societal challenges”; and (2) doing so in a way that aligns assets in the region.
  • DEIA – diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility – are key elements that NSF expects to be reflected in the proposals. That clearly led to the composition of the proposal teams which is clearly “top of mind” for the federal agency. One of the NSF staffers used the term “intentional, genuine partnerships” which I took to clearly not define “shotgun weddings.” On several occasions, speakers stressed the importance of providing real, meaningful roles for universities that are minority-focused.
  • The goal is not to include regions – a community to as large as parts of several states – that already have a “mature” innovation system. As such, Type-2 regions would be characterized as having innovation ecosystems that range from “nascent” to “emergent” or in a “growth” phase.
  • NSF discouraged multiple proposals from the same region and will actually hold a “Proposal Day” on August 1 where overlapping proposers might be encouraged to combine their efforts.
  • As is the case with large federal programs, sustainability after the NSF funding ends will be a priority.
  • Regions need to make sense geographically and most likely would be contiguous, since the goal is to try innovation and economic prosperity.

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