Invention to Impact – NSF’s Technology Translation Programs

Invention to Impact – NSF’s Technology Translation Programs
Pictured: One of the VocaliD team, recording her voice, or voicebanking, on VocaliD’s Human Voicebank. VocaliD is an NSF-funded small business. Photo credit: VocaliD.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) issues hundreds of grants every year to translate invention into impact — generating technologies and leadership for the nation’s innovation ecosystem.

In 1977, NSF launched a focused program to accelerate the growth of high-tech small businesses in the United States. While its core focus is on funding basic research, NSF has long recognized the transformative power of small businesses in translating basic research, creating jobs, and increasing national competitiveness.

Today, that initiative — known as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program — has spread to ten other federal agencies, and NSF has created a set of associated programs to help translate discoveries from basic research into the marketplace.

“NSF’s goal is not to buy a product, but rather to increase innovation and help the American economy by fostering commercial success and creating businesses and jobs in the U.S. that benefit society,” said Andrea Belz, the division director who leads NSF’s technology translation programs. “NSF wants to spark and feed innovations that grow from fundamental research and creative minds.”

NSF’s programs for technology translation provide researchers, entrepreneurs, and startups/small businesses with resources to overcome technological and adoption risks, ultimately becoming ready for the private capital marketplace. These programs bridge the space between igniting a transformative idea and developing a solution ready for testing and deployment at scale.

These programs include: Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC), Innovation Corps (I-Corps™), Partnerships for Innovation (PFI), INTERN, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs (America’s Seed Fund).

Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC). The IUCRC program fosters collaboration between companies and universities. Centers pursue industrially relevant, basic research projects in collaboration with their strategic partners. These consortia work together to address shared technical challenges, advancing solutions for stakeholders across multiple disciplines and research communities.

Innovation Corps (I-Corps™). NSF leads experiential education through the I-Corps program, which helps academic researchers develop skills to determine how their research can generate commercial impact. As a result, many of these research leaders and their students become entrepreneurs in startups or in large organizations, guiding the transformation of multiple sectors.

Partnerships for Innovation (PFI). Through the PFI program, NSF supports advanced research to advance inventions toward solutions.  These projects pair an academic team with a private sector partner to create a proof-of-concept with strong commercialization potential; these multidisciplinary teams then participate in the I-Corps program to develop additional skills in identifying and executing research pathways toward technology translation.

INTERN. The Foundation also recognizes the importance of preparing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows through the INTERN program, offering opportunities for emerging researchers to participate in technology development in industry and small business settings.

Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR). NSF is strengthening the innovation ecosystem through America’s Seed Fund investments in research and development, giving about 400 small businesses a year the opportunity to transform industries and create entirely new ones by commercializing their technologies.  NSF provides funding, coaching and access to a network of like-minded entrepreneurs.

In all these programs, NSF funds application development across the range of technical disciplines, supporting the transformation of fields such as diagnostic tools, biomedical systems, machine learning, batteries and new materials, clean technologies, additive manufacturing, advanced instrumentation and internet of things, lasers and photonics, sensors, and many more.

For researchers seeking to generate real, sustainable impact from their work, these programs serve as critical resources to address the so-called “Valley of Death.”  The experiential learning programs help scientists and engineers generate new insights about industry in a low-risk setting to inform their research programs.  When a commercialization pathway becomes clear, NSF offers funding specifically to help address the technical challenges inherent in developing a complex, transformative solution. Learn more at www.nsf.gov/eng/iip/about.jsp

NSF, an independent federal agency, was established in 1950 to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense. With an annual budget of $8.1 billion in fiscal year 2019, NSF is the funding source for approximately 25% of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities across fields such as social sciences, engineering, and the physical sciences.

NSF issues limited-term grants — currently about 12,000 new awards per year, with an average duration of three years — to fund research proposals to answer fundamental questions, test high-risk ideas, and develop entirely new approaches to important problems.

All NSF proposals undergo a rigorous and objective merit-review system, considered by some to be the gold standard of scientific review. An enormous amount of research, deliberation, thought, and discussion goes into each award decision. NSF prides itself on funding basic research, as well as the researchers that will transform the future.


Kelly Monterroso joined the National Science Foundation in 2016 as the Communications Specialist for the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. She manages strategic communications and outreach for America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF, I-Corps, Partnerships for Innovation and the Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers programs.

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