Rewarding Risky Research

As problems get more complex, so should the research that sets out to solve them—a reality that has inspired two new research funding projects.

In November, Amazon announced the launch of its Amazon Catalyst program, which will “identify, fund, and support bold, risky, globally impactful” research projects conducted by members of select university communities, according to the project’s website. The company chose the University of Washington in Seattle as its first Amazon Catalyst partner; selection and funding activity will be coordinated through CoMotion, UW’s innovation hub. The company notes that it chose UW because of its size and its proximity to an ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and startup activity. Catalyst's goal, the company explains, is “to expand the field of exploration to all areas of study in the university, including the humanities, social sciences, liberal [arts,] and practical arts. We aim to fund bold, disruptive ideas even at the conceptual stage…too early for venture capital funding and too unconventional to fit within the lower-risk model of federal research funding.” All students, faculty, and staff at UW’s three campuses are eligible to apply for funding. Amazon Catalyst plans to add more universities to the program in the future. Visit catalyst.amazon.com.

In a similar university-based initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Imperial College London in the United Kingdom have jointly invested US$300,000 to create the MIT–Imperial College London Seed Fund, which will kick-start risky early-stage research ideas by funding activities such as small scale experiments, prototype development, and travel. If the fund succeeds, both schools plan to increase their financial support. Says Maggie Dallman, Imperial's associate provost of academic partnerships, “Sometimes very modest sums can make all the difference in helping ambitious and even risky ideas to take off.”