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$31M Gift will Fund Early Stage Research by High-Tech Entrepreneurs

The University of Washington is receiving a $31.2 million gift from Washington Research Foundation to boost entrepreneurship and support research that tackles some of society’s most crucial challenges.

by Michelle Ma-University of Washington News Office
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The award will support neuroengineering research at the UW. In this photo, graduate student Brad Dickerson runs tests on an insect using a pair of Helmholtz coils.Photo credit: Mary Levin, UW PhotographyThe award will fund four interdisciplinary initiatives that seek to advance global innovation in clean energy, protein design, big data science and neuroengineering.

The funding will be used to hire new faculty, attract competitive postdoctoral researchers and enhance facilities and infrastructure. The goal is to boost the UW’s contribution in these high-need research areas and encourage spinout companies among involved researchers.

“This is a watershed moment for the university and Washington Research Foundation,” said UW President Michael K. Young. ”To see investors in Washington supporting their flagship research university makes a strong statement about how important such local investment is. The four grant recipient groups include some of our most productive and creative faculty, and we are deeply grateful to the foundation for its vote of confidence in their work.”

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The award, given to four projects over six years, represents the largest gift by the foundation to the UW. The funding is unusually flexible, allowing each project team to name specific resources it needs to meet its stated goals, said Mary Lidstrom, UW vice provost for research and a professor of chemical engineering and microbiology.

“The projects impact a large number of departments in multiple schools and colleges, resulting in a broad and sustained impact for the university as a whole,” Lidstrom said. “This investment will also have long-lasting economic impact to the larger community, creating jobs and revenue in high-tech areas for many years to come.”

Neil King and graduate student Yu-Ru Lin observe bacterial colony growth at the Institute for Protein Design.Photo credit: Brian DalBalconThe projects were chosen based on the researchers who lead them and their competitive positions in their respective fields, as well as the possibility the UW research will set a global standard and create the clear potential for spinout companies. University leaders worked with the foundation to identify an initial group of six projects, and after reviewing proposals and visiting with each group the foundation selected four to fund.

“We’re very pleased to continue and solidify our long-term relationship with the University of Washington,” said Ronald Howell, president and CEO of Washington Research Foundation. “And our strategic investment will help the UW recruit and retain the very best people who can advance scientific discovery. Hopefully, this will pave the way for greater innovation in data analysis, neuroengineering, protein design and clean energy as we move into the future.”

The foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports cutting-edge research and early stage entrepreneurs in the areas of life sciences, information technology and physical sciences. It also seeks to help grow Washington’s technology economy.

The four UW projects funded by Washington Research Foundation are:

Institute for Protein Design Innovation Fellows
$8 million over six years

The Institute for Protein Design will recruit and hire about 12 scientists to be based at Seattle-area labs that collaborate with the UW institute and specialize in the fields of health, medicine, computer science, materials science and engineering.

The scientists, or innovation fellows, will work at various collaborating organizations, but will be trained in protein design at the UW. They will apply the methods they learn to help solve current research challenges while at their host organizations. The goal is to recruit top-notch scientists who have the potential to become tenure-track professors.

The Institute for Protein Design formed in 2012 with the mission to design new synthetic proteins that address current challenges in medicine, energy and technology. Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature provided $1 million in funding in the 2014 supplemental budget to support the institute.

More information from the Institute for Protein Design.

Institute for Neuroengineering
$7.19 million over six years

A number of UW schools, colleges and departments will use the award to establish an Institute for Neuroengineering, which will foster collaborative research across many disciplines to address current challenges in neural disorders and functions, and provide new technologies for people affected by neural disorders.

The team plans to hire two junior-level faculty members in the areas of sensory information processing and computational neuroscience.

The funding will also support nine postdoctoral researchers, nine graduate students, nine undergraduate students and nine high school student interns. In addition, it will support building renovations in the Department of Biology to house new research. Research will take place jointly with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the UW.

Global Leadership in Data-Intensive Discovery
$9.27 million over six years

Rapid advances in technology are transforming nearly every field from “data-poor” to “data-rich” – not only in the sciences, engineering, and medicine, but also in the social sciences and increasingly in the humanities. The ability to extract knowledge from this abundance of data is important for breakthroughs in research.

This team, which includes 13 faculty members spanning nine departments and four schools and colleges, is working to ensure that the UW is a leader both in advancing the methodologies of data science and in putting these advances to work in many different fields.

Operating under the umbrella of the UW’s eScience Institute, the team will hire six new faculty members specializing in methods and applications of big data, establish three chairs and three professorships and recruit 13 postdoctoral researchers.

Funding will also support the remodel of space on campus to house the UW’s new “data science studio,” an area where data scientists and researchers across fields can work collaboratively on projects.

Excellence in Clean Energy Innovation
$6.74 million over six years

The UW’s Clean Energy Institute will hire nine new faculty members who will focus on lowering the cost and increasing the performance of solar energy production, storage and delivery. Research will include the discovery of advanced materials for solar cells and batteries, manufacturing methods that are lower cost, and the development of new software and hardware strategies for integrating clean energy with systems and the grid.

The funding will also support six new postdoctoral researchers and the creation of a new experimental manufacturing facility on campus that will help move discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.

The Legislature and Inslee established the institute in 2013 to be a research center for advancing solar energy and electrical energy storage capabilities.

More information from the Clean Energy Institute.