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Big Ideas Generator Aims to Spark Research Innovation with Wine Tastings and Coffee

The University of Chicago’s research accelerator, Arete, is running its own experiment—how to bolster promising and novel research ideas before their merit has been recognized. Arete has created the Big Ideas Generator to help get those early stage ideas into motion. 

by Jann Ingmire
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Physics Prof. William Irvine speaks at a Chalk Talk, an opportunity for faculty from different fields to address emergent topics in five-minute talks, during a Big Ideas event last spring.Courtesy of Big Ideas GeneratorBIG’s kickoff event for the fall quarter was held Monday, Sept. 29 at 3 p.m. at the Catalyst, a newly renovated space on the third floor of the campus bookstore at 58th Street and Ellis Avenue. The Catalyst provides a space where faculty can meet informally or in a conference room with high-tech capabilities, while enjoying artisanal coffee and occasional wine tastings.

“We recognized both the glorious promise and the frustrating pitfalls of academic life because we have lived through them,” said Elena Zinchenko, director of Research Innovation, who runs BIG. “We are trying to create an environment at UChicago that restores the ideal of research being a stimulating, productive and enjoyable intellectual endeavor. We connect people from different disciplines and provide seed funding that is rapid, flexible and is tolerant of false starts. The only payoff we care about is great science,” says Zinchenko.

BIG offers an entrepreneurial approach to support and cultivate nascent ideas that are too early-stage to attract conventional support. With support through a grant from The John Templeton Foundation, BIG will provide quarterly funding through seed and vision grants. Grants will range from $15,000 to $100,000 and cover three initial focus areas: information, complexity and cognition. The deadline for applications for both the seed and vision grants for this fall quarter is Oct. 13.

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“As a scientist whose ultimate job is to think and create, I often get bogged down on the details and forget the big picture ideas that could revolutionize my field. It is refreshing to have an initiative that allows me to sit back and forces me to think big and outside of the box,” said Nicho Hatsopoulos, professor of organismal biology and anatomy and chair of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience.

In addition to providing seed funding, BIG hosts "chalk talks" at the beginning of each quarter. Chalk talks encourage speakers from different fields to address emergent topics in five-minute, rapid-fire talks given to a broad faculty audience.

Psychology Professor Daniel Casasanto, one of the speakers who attended the first chalk talk, said, “UChicago pushes faculty members to think big—it’s an imperative that’s implicit in our research culture. The Big Ideas Generator makes this imperative explicit, and creates a new pathway to funding for high-risk, high-impact science.”

The first round of seed project grants was awarded in the spring and included a project lead by Dario Maestripieri, professor of comparative human development, on probing genetic influences on risk-taking and decision-making, and a brain-stimulating intervention that could potentially alter negative memories headed by Assoc. Prof. David Gallo of the psychology department. Two other seed grant recipients, physicists Heinrich Jaeger and Sidney Nagel, are working with a group of architects to explore “design by disorder,” a project that seeks to create materials that can transition from solid states to fluid-like plasticity depending on how individuals interact with them.

Select projects also will receive comprehensive support from Arete to help them secure substantial external funding and launch them into larger research programs.

For more information about BIG funding opportunities, visit