University R&D accelerator group issues grants for 8 projects

NCInnovation used a multiphased review process and ties funding tranches to milestones

Among the eight grants approved by NCInnovation was beehive monitoring research at Appalachian State University. (Michael Probst / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — NCInnovation, the nonprofit focused on speeding up commercialization of research and development of university projects in the state, recently announced $5.2 million in funding for eight research projects at seven North Carolina public universities in its first round of pilot program grants.

NCInnovation (NCI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that received $500 million in nonrecurring funds over the next two years as part of the 2022-23 budget. Of that funding, NCI can use $140 million of the endowment as investment income over the next two fiscal years.

NCI said the eight projects selected have “achieved proof-of-concept, show commercial promise, and have the potential to drive job creation and economic growth across the state.”

At least six UNC System chancellors have issued formal statements in support of the grants.

Twenty-eight projects were initially received from 10 state university leaders. That number was reduced to 19 after initial reviews and the additional review processes filtered the project list down to the eight approved.

The projects greenlit for grants include: lithium refining (UNC Greensboro); melanoma treatment (East Carolina University); drinking water purification (UNC Charlotte); power grid efficiency (UNC Charlotte); multiyear vaccine development (UNC Wilmington); mosquito disease tracking (Western Carolina University); beehive monitoring (Appalachian State University); and neuro drug delivery (N.C. A&T State University).

More information on NCI’s grants and those approved in the initial round can be accessed at ncinnovation.org/grants/.

In an interview with North State Journal, NCI’s Executive Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer Michelle Bolas discussed her research commercialization background at UNC Chapel Hill as well as the grant program’s extensive multilayered review process that she said took around six to seven weeks to complete.

While running the innovation division at the University of Chapel Hill, Bolas was responsible for several programs evaluating faculty-applied research for potential commercialization and provided grants to those projects through thorough review processes.

“And so I came to this work with a lot of familiarity on how to set that up and how to do it across the field of projects that are technology agnostic,” said Bolas, noting many programs funded with public dollars tend to focus on specific technology areas with certain experts on hand.

“When you’re talking about a whole system of researchers, it’s really important to us that we remain technology agnostic,” said Bolas. “So our process has to accommodate an ability to get lots of different eyes on these emerging projects because it’s impossible to have deep subject matter expertise on staff in every area that we’re going to be reviewing. So the process is designed to do that.”

Bolas said one of the requirements she had in coming to NCI was to have the freedom to construct programs based on best practices and national best practices within the innovation space without being influenced by other factors.

“I think the other aspect of it is having pieces of the process be blind from each other,” Bolas said, describing allowing regional staff working with the projects and review panels to do their assessments before combining them “into a consensus viewpoint to come up with our final rankings.”

The multiphase review process included a market-fit assessment led by RTI Innovation Advisers and an external review process conducted by an expert panel. Both processes used primary and secondary reviewers to score the projects based on individual project merits.

Seven evaluation criteria were applied for each project: significance and potential impact; approach, milestones, deliverables and challenges; team and environment; competitive advantage; commercialization potential and regional benefits; use of funds; and risk.

Each project is scored on the seven criteria on a sliding scale of one to five, with one being poor and five being “meets or exceeds.” Based on review scores, viability assessments and regional distribution, NCI prioritized the proposals and selected the projects to recommend to its board of directors.

The tranche structure of grants tied to milestone reviews provides an extra layer of oversight.

“So the milestone will get us on those projects every six months so we can flag if something’s going off the rails,” said Bolas. “The tranching gets that extra layer of insurance that we don’t move forward with the project that isn’t going in the right direction.”

For the projects getting funding, NCI’s cooperative agreement terms and legal mandates require any commercial entities arising from research subsidized by the grants will be obligated to retain their corporate headquarters and primary operations within the state for a minimum of five years.

Bolas also said the review process “captured extensive notes” on all submitted projects and NCI is getting ready to send out reports to those not selected. Additionally, the regional directors will follow up with recommendations for developing those projects further so they can reapply for a future grant.

She said NCI has received “significant reach out” from colleagues in other states wanting to know more about the NCI grant model. Bolas cited both Wisconsin and Tennessee as “looking very closely at the NCI model from the endowment perspective.”

The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank that publishes Carolina Journal, has recently pushed back on NCI’s public funding.

“I really value the investment that the state makes and in the systems that it’s put in place and believe that we’ve already invested as taxpayers in this research,” Bolas said of the foundation’s objections to the program. “And we have a right to get more out of it, but it takes a little bit more.

“We’re doing things that the private sector is simply not going to do. I know there are those who don’t believe that, but those opinions are coming largely from people who have never worked within applied research or technology commercialization inside universities. The value that North Carolina is going to get out of these additional dollars, I believe, will far exceed the dollars that we’re putting in via this very conservative model of utilizing only earned income revenue off of a bolus of funding that the state still reserves the right to.

“We’re going to get so much more out of it than we’re putting in.”

About A.P. Dillon 1320 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_