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Montana State receives $6 million to enhance its research impact

MSU GRANT.jpeg
Posted at 8:30 AM, Dec 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-19 10:30:23-05

BOZEMAN – With new funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, research conducted at Montana State University will have more opportunities to be translated into products and solutions with extended real-life impact.

MSU was announced last week as one of 18 teams nationwide to receive funding through the NSF’s new Accelerating Research Translation, or ART, program. The cooperative agreement will provide $6 million in support over the next four years.

“This is an exciting opportunity for MSU to increase its capacity to support and grow translational research activities that will stimulate local and regional economic development,” said Alison Harmon, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development.

Harmon said the ART program provides resources for a multi-tiered approach, including entrepreneurship and innovation experience for students, faculty and staff; research translation support; and opportunities for more university-industry partnerships.

“I am particularly excited about the principal investigators’ inclusive approach,” she added.

MSU is in a prime position to take the next step in empowering researchers to move their discoveries and inventions into practical applications, said Daniel Juliano, director of MSU’s Technology Transfer Office. In September, MSU announced a record $230 million in research expenditures for the fiscal year that ended in June. The ART funding will bring more of that research into society, said Juliano.

"NSF endeavors to empower academic institutions to build the pathways and structures needed to speed and scale their research into products and services that benefit the nation," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "The Accelerating Research Translation program in NSF’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Directorate identifies, and champions institutions positioned to expand their research translation capacity by investing in activities essential to move results to practice."

The ART funding will support two primary elements, said Juliano — technology transfer and entrepreneurship.

Technology transfer is a field that includes patenting and finding industry partners who can commercialize technologies developed through MSU research. It’s typical for research funds to support a project until fundamental findings are published. From there, developing those findings into practice often requires separate funding sources. ART is designed to support that process at MSU, said Juliano, beginning with “seed translational research projects,” or STRPs, in the colleges of Agriculture and Education, Health and Human Development.

In the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, work led by Blake Wiedenheft will constitute one STRP. Wiedenheft’s lab focuses on the science and opportunities surrounding CRISPR, a type of immune system used by bacteria to fend off viruses. Recent work by Wiedenheft’s team has identified ways that CRISPR technology can be used to edit the genetic material RNA, which could have applications ranging from vaccine development to the treatment of genetic diseases.

MSU’s other STRP furthers ongoing work by Tricia Seifert, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development. For more than a decade, Seifert has conducted research on the factors that lead to success for college students, with particular emphasis on students who are the first in their family to attend college. The hope for the work’s next stages is to create a virtual simulation in which participants learn about higher education terminology, time management, finances and more. Translating Seifert’s years of academic labor into a digital package that can be shared with high school counselors and staff would increase the ripple effects of the foundational work, Juliano said.

“I am grateful for the support of the ART program to test the efficacy of this work with its target audience,” said Seifert. “Participants in the early stage of testing have found the product highly engaging. We are excited to gather more data about the factors influencing student interest in pursuing postsecondary educational pathways, particularly with respect to STEM majors and careers.”

In late 2024, other MSU faculty in any discipline or department will be able to apply for funding under the ART cooperative agreement to support the translation of their research beyond campus, said Juliano.

Alongside support for technology transfer development, the ART funding’s second focus will be on entrepreneurship, said Juliano. That portion of the award will complement MSU’s Blackstone LaunchPad, funding opportunities for researchers to take part in incubator and accelerator programs such as 406 Labs, a 10-week program that connects fledgling businesses with mentors providing guidance and expertise.

A major element of new entrepreneurship support will be MSU’s Innovation and Design Academy. The new initiative will help generate and teach cross-discipline approaches to solve modern problems and create new products and services.

“Fitting with our desire to increase research translation, we want to be supportive of all types of initiatives that people can take, be it a social venture, a nonprofit or addressing a problem in their community,” he said. “We want them to feel enabled to develop and implement solutions.”

MSU will partner with the University of Washington and CoMotion, UW's collaborative innovation hub, which have well-developed technology transfer and research translation programs. UW will serve as a mentoring university, something each of the 18 ART teams has. The collaboration builds on existing partnerships with UW, such as the WWAMI Medical Education Program, strengthening the relationship and knowledge exchange between the two universities, Juliano said.

“MSU has a strong fundamental research program, and it's been growing in recent years,” he said. “We were able to show the NSF the potential for more of that fundamental research to be translated into practice. There’s a clear opportunity to step up to the next level, and we’re ready to do that here.”

Further opportunity to strengthen connections with other institutions comes from the ART program’s emphasis on inclusion in research and technology. With the new funding, MSU will open ART opportunities to interested students and faculty from Montana’s tribal colleges, including Blackfeet Community College in Browning and Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

“This program provides a tangible mechanism to meaningfully engage tribal partners and communities across the state,” said Virginia Bratton, an associate professor in MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship and a co-PI on the project. “I am so pleased for this opportunity to support the connection between research at MSU and vital applications and economic development in Montana. The ART program underscores the value of higher education in this state and the many ways that MSU contributes to the thriving economy of Montana.“

Along with Juliano and Bratton, other co-PIs include Trevor Huffmaster, director of MSU’s Blackstone LaunchPad, and Lee Spangler, director of the Energy Research Institute, which is housed in the Office of Research and Economic Development.

Juliano called the award a milestone in bringing the university’s research impact to a new level.

“MSU has solidly demonstrated scholarly excellence,” said Juliano. “We would like to complement that strength by creating programs by which those findings are translated to practice, where real people’s lives are improved. This award will allow us to do that.”

Launched by NSF's Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Directorate, the ART program directly addresses a long-standing gap between academic research and the products, services and solutions Americans need. While ART seeks to build capacity and infrastructure for translational research at U.S. institutions of higher education, the program also aims to enhance the role of IHEs in regional innovation ecosystems and effectively train graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in translational research, benefiting them across a range of career options. The program is authorized by the "CHIPS and Science Act of 2022."

For more information, visit the ART program webpage.

Daniel Juliano, MSU Technology Transfer Office, daniel.juliano@montana.edu or Trevor Huffmaster, Blackstone LaunchPad, trevor.huffmaster@montana.edu