NSF programs supporting translational research represented along the linear innovation continuum, prior to the introduction of the AIR and new I-Corps programs (circa August 2010). Credit: NSF.

Serving as midwife for the research to commercial transition is a familiar role for the National Science Foundation. In an earlier post, I discussed NSF’s new I-Corps initiation, but that wasn’t the only development coming out of the the foundation. Last week, NSF also announced the awarding of $9.2 million in 22 grants through its Accelerating Innovation Research program, which is under the umbrella of the Industrial Innovation and Partnerships Division. NSF is also helping get the word out about two other important projects initiated by the Obama administration.

Among the 22 funded AIR projects are several with intriguing names:

  • Next generation CdTe photovoltaic technology;
  • Development and evaluation of self-powered piezo-floating-gate sensor chipsets for embedded and implantable structural health monitoring;
  • Si nanoelectronic femtosensor as ultrasensitive, label-free, protein based molecular diagnostic platform;
  • Transforming nanofiber technology through scalable fabrication;
  • Materials translation for bindered anthracite briques in foundry cupolas;
  • Creation of an ecosystem for biophotonics innovation;
  • Enhancing nanotechnology advances in businesses leveraging energy; and
  • Visible-light-activated transparent antimicrobial coatings.

The AIR program, first announced in late 2010, was created to help academic researchers transition proof of concept innovations into commercial realities. The AIR program also makes awards to existing NSF-funded consortia to help build research collaborations with business partners. (An example of an existing NSF funded consortium is the Center for Glass Surfaces, Interfaces & Coatings Research at Penn State University.)

“Innovation” is now a consistent theme coming out of the several federal bodies. Over the next year, I especially think we will be hearing a lot more about innovation in the context of the Materials Genome (pdf) and President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.

As part of last week’s NSF–ACerS Principle Investigators workshop, Ian Robertson (director of the NSF Division of Materials Research) provided some more details about the Genome project. He explained to the workshop attendees that an overarching purpose of the project is to accelerate the timeline for new materials to become commercial realities. Currently, it takes about 20 years for a new material to go from lab to application. He says the primary goal is to shrink the discovery-to-application timeline to less than five years.

Robertson says this will require an integrated approach involving experimental methods, digital data and computational tools. He also mentioned said a key driver for the NSF will be to develop the next generation workforce and the consequent need to change undergraduate and graduate thinking.

Over the next few months Robertson and his DOE and DOD counterparts are constructing a unified pitch about the Materials Genome, its mission and funding initiatives, and they will be hitting the scientific meeting circuit to spread the word. Watch for more information to come out of MS&T, the fall MRS meeting, etc.