This fall, 10 researchers will get an infusion of startup funding to collect pilot data they’ll weave into proposals for external grants with much larger bottom lines.

The seed grant program, called the Engineering Faculty Organization-Opportunity Grants, is one of several run by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). One of the ways the investment institute supports research on campus is by connecting researchers with resources, including seed funding, that will help them expand the scope and impact of their work. This particular program is targeted for faculty in the College of Engineering who have identified an external grant they’d like to pursue and want to be able to include preliminary results in the application.

Mary Kasarda, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and ICTAS’ faculty director for scholarship, manages the program. She said that seed investments like this ultimately contribute to stronger proposals for external funding by lowering the barriers to pursuing new ideas that spring up around the margins of existing projects.

“People don’t always have the resources to just try something. All of their students might already be allocated to other projects, or they might need a piece of equipment they don’t have. Even a small amount of funding can give them what they need to get started,” she said. “‘Seed’ is the operative word.” Once they’re able to dive into the project, the pilot data that comes from those early experiments can help convince a funding agency that a new idea has merit.

This is the third year of the program. For the first two years, ICTAS awarded five of the $10,000 grants each fall, funding projects on topics like wireless sensors for smart farms, 3D-printed fluid cells, flu transmission, and bio-hybrid micro-robots to deliver drugs to tumors surgery can’t reach. The program has been so successful in helping researchers attract grants and other awards that the research institute doubled the number of recipients this year.

One of those success stories belongs to Stan Grant, a professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The seed grant he won in 2019 supported the collection of preliminary data in watersheds that drain to the Occoquan Reservoir in Northern Virginia, as part of a bigger project investigating the gradual infiltration of salt that threatens freshwater ecosystems. That data helped form the basis for Grant’s successful application for a $3.6 million center grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ICTAS seed grant, he said, “helped kick start the project and provided much needed credibility with stakeholders — credibility that turned out to be critical for getting the NSF center grant funded.”

Researchers applying for these seed grants must specify the external funding opportunity their pilot project is a prelude for. The project must also be a collaboration with a colleague in another college or department — a situation where seed funding can be especially helpful, because early results can validate the potential of an unconventional research pairing.

This year’s 10 winning proposals emerged from a very competitive pool, Kasarda said. Over the years, she’s noticed that the strongest applications come from faculty with an idea for how to add a new dimension to an existing project — “something they have a good basis for trying but may not have enough data yet to support a big external grant.”

“There’s a lot of excitement around it,” she said. “The faculty members who apply for these grants are excited about their research, and that comes across. That’s why I enjoy it.”

The following projects will be funded through the program this year:

  • Validation of Joint Kinematics using Markerless Motion Capture Methods in Pediatric Patients with Cerebral Palsy. Led by Sara Arena, a collegiate associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics.
  • Intelligent Augmented Reality for the Future of Work. Led by Doug Bowman, the Frank J. Maher Professor of Computer Science.
  • Socially-Connected and Ability-Aware Online Physical Training for Older Adults. Led by Sol Lim, an assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
  • Multi-sensor Array/System for Real-time Monitoring of Patients during Hemodialysis Treatment. Led by John Robertson, a research professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics.
  • Acoustic Holograms for Human Transcranial Neuromodulation in Treating Major Depression. Led by Shima Shahab, as assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
  • Effects of Blast Trauma on Neurogenesis. Led by Pamela VandeVord, the N. Waldo Harrison Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics.
  • Reducing Agricultural Methane through Biopolymers. Led by Abby Whittington, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and chemical engineering.
  • Sustainable Convergence of Electrochemical Process Systems for Engineering Nitrogen Fixation. Led by Hongliang Xin, an associate professor of chemical engineering.
  • Field-deployable Correlated Multimodal Sensing of Waterborne Pathogens for Wastewater-based Epidemiology. Led by Wei Zhou, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Marine Energy and Blue Economy Center. Led by Lei Z

Source: Seed investments set young ideas on the path to becoming fully fledged — and funded — projects | VTx | Virginia Tech