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Type 1 recipient shares four elements to their successful NSF Engine proposal

June 08, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

NSF designed the recently awarded NSF Engine Type 1 development awards to bring technology-based solutions to bear on many critical challenges facing our nation. These challenges include climate change and sustainability, and this week we are highlighting three SSIT members whose NSF Engine proposals focus on sustainability. SSTI member-led projects related to sustainability include the University of Texas at Austin’s project to research and develop energy and train the next-generation energy professionals (SSTI member Sandia National Laboratories is on this team), The Water Council’s project to advance water and energy technologies for the manufacturing and utilities sectors (SSTI member Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation is a partner), and the University of Hawai’i’s project to create a climate-resilient food innovation network.

Of 44 NSF Engine awards, nonprofits lead 11. The Water Council is one of them.

Nonprofits haven’t traditionally led NSF awards, which typically go to universities to support research at the institutions. While the NSF Engine program has a vital research component, it also emphasizes building regional engines using industry and workforce development components.

"It becomes a bigger picture than solely research, focused as well on use-inspired research," said The Water Council's Chief Financial Officer & Chief Operating Officer, Amy Jensen. “There must be all the more communication and connection to those users of the technology coming out of this research, rather than just focusing on research for discovery or for pure research purposes.” For this emphasis, nonprofits such as The Water Council may be better equipped than academia.

Recently, Jensen shared the four elements she believes made their proposal a winner.

1) Build on an existing strength

“Start with something you already have,” said Jensen. She noted that The Water Council has a preexisting structure that fits into the NSF Engine concept, describing The Water Council as a small version of what the NSF Engines program aspires to create. The organization already works with many constituents, interacting with state and local governments, universities, large companies, and other nonprofits. The strategically selected core team partners provide additional resources to cultivate workforce development, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

2) Know what makes your region unique

The Water Council is on the shores of the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of the world's fresh surface water. The availability of fresh water attracted the water-dependent beer brewing industry to the area. As the region evolved, many companies that supplied that industry's needs developed there, leading to a concentration of innovative water tech companies.

As they prepared their proposal, The Water Council sought to highlight the region's unique industrial legacy as well as leverage some of their existing goals. There was room to strengthen the well-established companies and expand their access to new technologies. And there was also room for attracting more companies to the region.

Resiliency was also an important goal, so much so that the unofficial name for their engine is The Resiliency Innovation Engine. "Companies, manufacturers, and communities need the technology that can help withstand extreme weather events, climate change impact, and even cybersecurity concerns," Jensen said.

“The proposal fits in with our existing goals to further the water technology cluster," Jensen said. "It just expands the picture to water and energy resilience." 

3) Define your region

The Water Council was already aware of the concentration of water technology in the region and identified a substantial overlap with potential energy and controls partners as well as key academic institutions. The Water Council realized NSF was looking for submissions with workforce and economic development components, with university research playing a complementary role as the source of innovation and was concerned that too large a region would make it difficult to develop impactful plans, particularly related to workforce development.

“We did consider the wider state of Wisconsin, but ultimately focused on the region where solution providers and technology already existed."

4) Form public/private partnerships

The Resiliency Engine’s proposal demonstrated the essential element of using a public-private partnership to solve regional issues. The Water Council had the involvement of industry to provide a clear picture of industry needs and academic partners that would generate use-inspired research.

The Water Council also partnered with other nonprofits. The MKE Tech Hub Coalition will focus on the engine’s workforce development plan, while the Wisconsin Technology Council will focus on entrepreneurship, investment, and technology transfer. The aspiring engine also partners with several Wisconsin-based universities committed to expanding use-inspired research in water tech and energy innovation and supporting collaboration with industry.

“Our initial core team was structured to address all of the NSF-required elements,” Jensen said. “But the success of this two-year development phase will depend on developing strong relationships with an ever-growing pool of partners in the region.”

The long-term goal

“The long-term goal is to have this region seen as the place to go for resiliency innovations and solutions,” Jensen said. “And for that recognition to strengthen the companies and the manufacturers here and drive more companies to come here. Ultimately, our region can become the center of solutions for resiliency and sustainability in water and energy.”

nsf, proposals