How a “game-changing” gift is supercharging UW research

Grad student Yang Hsia at the UW's Institute for Protein Design Credit: Credit: UW Institute for Protein Design

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.

The applications could be very beneficial — and controversial. Imagine planting impulses in the brain that wouldn’t otherwise be there. As this research comes on line, expect some heated philosophical and ethical conversations.

With more than $7 million in new funding, Daniel and his colleagues plan to upgrade their current research in this area, and establish the Institute for Neuroengineering at UW, which will gather data on the brain at a level that was impossible only a few years ago.

The eScience Institute

The field of “Big Data” analytics has been getting a lot of press in recent years, and for good reason. With advances in sensor and monitoring technologies, nearly every field — from urban planning to agriculture — has increased the amount of information it collects — exponentially.

The challenge is doing something useful with all that data. In this booming field, UW is quickly establishing itself as a global leader.

According to WRF CEO Ron Howell, his organization’s $31.2 million gift was inspired by Jeff Bezos. In 2012, in the interests of creating a Big Data ecosystem in Puget Sound, the Amazon CEO endowed two $1 million professorships. The seed money enabled UW to lure two coveted Big Data researchers away from other top-tier schools who were recruiting them. This hiring coup “stimulated our thinking,” Howell says.

Fittingly, more than $9 million — the largest single portion — of the WRF’s gift goes to fund the Global Leadership in Data-Intensive Discovery program in the UW’s data-centric eScience Institute. The money will help support six new faculty members, three chairs, three professorships and 13 postdoctoral researchers.

According to the eScience Institute’s founding director Ed Lazowska, the primary goal is to hire a breed of “Pi People.” That is, researchers who are equally conversant in seemingly disparate fields, such as neuroscience and sociology. Pi People, says Lazowska, have a wide gap between their academic “legs,” similar to the space between the “legs” of the mathematical symbol for that famously endless number (i.e. π).

These interdisciplinary researchers can serve as “ambassadors” between departments, says Lazowska, knitting far-flung areas of research together in a holistic way that energizes both. The eScience Institute wants to help all scientists, from neurologists to sociologists, to sort through their reams of raw data and discover the patterns and possibilities buried inside.

“We’re seeing a shift in how scientific discovery happens,” says Lazowska. “Every field is going from data poor to data rich, and we need the capability to understand that information. This [WRF] gift consolidates our already strong position in that [area]. It’s going to be a complete game changer.”

The Institute for Protein Design

The Institute for Protein Design plans to extend that scientific cross-pollination beyond the university and into private research institutions. With its portion of funding, the institute will hire a dozen of its own Pi People, who will work closely with leading Seattle-area researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Benaroya and elsewhere.

For nearly two decades, UW scientists have pioneered the development of synthetic proteins, which have served as HIV vaccines, the catalysts for chemical reactions, and most recently, a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. David Baker (left) heads up the institute, and like his colleague in big data, he says collaboration is the key to making his institute effective.

“We want to change the world with protein design, but we need to know where the sweet spots are in other research,” says Baker. He gives the example of Fred Hutchinson. With these funds, the Institute will hire faculty members who can work directly with that organization, delving into their private research to develop and test ways proteins can combat cancer tumors.

“Seattle has all these great research institutions with great researchers, but they’re all just doing their own things,” says Baker. “They’re not synergistic. We want to change how people work.”

Baker says the gift will enable collaborative research beyond the medical realm. His institute is working on proteins that bind to specific toxins, for example, which could have wide environmental as well as medicinal applications. Fabrics that can break down pollutants are also possible, he says, in partnership with material scientists.

The Clean Energy Institute

While biologist Tom Daniel says “Pi People (are) the real secret sauce over all the things they’re funding”, one standalone project managed to grab WRF’s attention. Tucked away in the press release about the WRF gift is mention of using the funds to build “an experimental manufacturing facility on campus.” That facility’s purpose, says the release, is to move the discoveries of UW’s Clean Energy Institute “from the laboratory to the marketplace.”

Daniel Schwartz, the institute’s director, says the facility is actually a form of  “printing press.” Instead of newspapers, it will print out a new kind of solar panel using “nano-ink” – a liquid that contains photovoltaic materials in place of traditional silicon. UW is exploring how this could be used to create effective, transparent solar “coatings” for windows, as opposed to the traditional black panels.

Applying this coating over the windows of skyscrapers, Schwartz says, could potentially turn cities into massive energy farms.

“Modern building windows reflect about 70 percent of light,” says Schwartz. “We can harvest that 70 percent. Researchers here are coming up with such amazing photovoltaic material. With the funding for this facility and to hire new expertise in our lab, things are going to accelerate.”

This semi-transparent solar cell collects and stores the energy from sunlight on building windows. Credit: UW Clean Energy Institute

Schwartz envisions Puget Sound serving as testing ground for a new solar age in coming years, in which buildings generate their own power, and perhaps even sell excess capacity back to the grid. It could be a great moneymaker for Seattle and Bellevue, he says.

“This is a future that is completely imaginable,” Schwartz says. “And we can take the lead on it.”

If fully realized, the Clean Energy Institute’s research alone could utterly change the world, and have a financial impact in the high billions. But all the WRF beneficiaries have similar commercial potential.

Its gift to the UW could have a deep impact on the local economy in coming years given that roughly 75 percent of UW graduates stay in the state. By providing financial horsepower, the WRF investment gives the university a much-needed edge in the competition for tomorrow’s most talented scientists. The laboratory research being done today and down the road could spawn tomorrow’s most groundbreaking companies.

“We’re the absolute leader in (solar panel innovation), and that’s not the only field,” says Schwartz, who is especially excited about the prospect of luring top postdoctoral researchers who are just starting their careers. “We’re getting even more of a head start … These people move into our regional economy, and it could impact the area for generations.”

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