As a top research institution, the University of Washington netted nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds last year to support its discovery efforts. So when the school announced last week that it would receive an additional $31.2 million (over six years) from the Washington Research Foundation, the news didn’t generate much fanfare. Outside the UW, that is.
It’s a different story inside. Talk with top UW researchers and faculty, and “game changing” is the most common phrase used to describe the WRF investment. Otherwise staid scientists can’t contain their excitement, and the cause for their enthusiasm becomes clearer as they describe how this money will change their work, the university’s future and perhaps even the Puget Sound economy.
Skyscrapers that are independent of — and contribute to — the energy grid. Self-driving cars inspired by the brains of houseflies. Fabrics that fight pollution. These may sound like flights of fancy, but they’re the sorts of innovations UW researchers are now empowered to pursue. In fact, the viability of these ideas as commercial products is the reason the UW is getting this nitro boost of WRF support.
Federal grants tend to be very specific in their scope, with researchers applying for support for individual projects. WRF is taking a broader approach. According to chief financial officer Jeff Eby, the latest gift is the largest the organization has ever given the UW — by far. The funds awarded “over the next five years,” says Eby, “will exceed the total of our gifts over the last 20.” For this reason, WRF has opted for a more dramatic gesture than funding a few dozen projects.
The dollars will support only four programs at the university, each selected because it plays to the university’s most promising strengths. The funding is “flexible” relative to federal grants; it is being given to institutes rather than to specific projects, and can be used in ways that federal grant dollars often can't, such as to compete for top staff or pursue riskier research.
This approach is designed to speed the university’s already accelerated commercialization of research, hustling discoveries from the bench into startups.
We spoke with the principal researchers in each of the four WRF-supported programs: neural research, clean energy tech, protein design and big data analytics. All the researchers see huge, transformative changes on the horizon. Each contends that WRF’s catalytic gift may fundamentally change how research is conducted at UW and throughout the region.
The Institute of Neuroengineering
“Right now, we’re at the takeoff point of a deeper understanding,” says UW biology professor Tom Daniel (below). He’s talking about his research on brains. Human brains. Mouse brains. Insect brains. Daniel would like to analyze everything about all of them. Intel chips may have more computing power than a human mind, says Daniel, but even a moth’s brain can do things computers cannot. A true understanding of neural systems could lead to amazing breakthroughs in neuroscience, robotics, medicine and other fields, not to mention a few ethical dilemmas.
For example, thousands of people can navigate a crowded Times Square without bumping into one another. That’s because humans have very sophisticated navigational abilities. What if this capability could be understood and applied to make systems for self-driving cars or planes? What if we grasped enough about the brain’s inner workings to operate a prosthetic hand by thought? What if we used “waves of electrodes and light-activating proteins” not only to monitor, but to manipulate the brain’s structure and electrical circuitry.
“That’s a very controversial domain: electri-ceuticals,” says Daniel. “If you turn the right parts of the brain on at the right time, you can get them to do the right thing.”
Daniel contrasts these “electri-ceuticals” with the current pharmaceutical treatment for depression. Drugs like Prozac act as blunt instruments, he says, attempting to solve specific problems in the brain, but producing unwanted side effects throughout the body. “Electri-ceuticals” promise a more targeted treatment and a huge range of applications, by allowing us to activate specific parts of the brain.
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