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Building a Winning Team for Large-Scale Research Funding

August 7, 2023 — In the world of collaborative research, securing a big funding award can be a game-changer that accelerates research and innovation and can spur large-scale economic gains for a community. Big projects like an NSF Engineering Research Center or one of the Economic Development Administration Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs (Tech Hubs) awards require a matrix of academic, industry, and often nonprofit partners to succeed. Building a winning team takes time and is a bit of an art; it requires the right mix of technical expertise, stakeholder input and commitment, and partnership know-how. From identifying the right partners to leveraging their individual strengths, getting the right people in place is essential to moving a project forward.

The right mix

Choosing key players for any team is crucial; the process begins by assessing program requirements and goals and then identifying the expertise needed for the job.

Key insight – For many of these programs, informational webinars are held and can be a great way to learn winning strategies and program intricacies.

For large-scale awards, organizations often break down the solicitation and compare the requirements with their own resources first. Most large-scale awards are multidisciplinary as well as multi-sector, so the team should have a combination of expertise and perspectives that address the areas in the solicitation. Diverse experience, knowledge, and perspectives will help address the solicitation’s intent to uncover new ways to approach problems. Bringing in partners and individuals who represent an array of backgrounds ensures your team can craft a proposal that stands out from the crowd.

Once the team is selected, ensuring that participants can work well together is critical. Prior experience in working collaboratively can be a key factor since it is very hard to build teams from scratch in response to a solicitation. Open communication and a shared vision for the proposal’s shape and substance contribute to a great proposal and strengthen the team.

Set clear expectations and create communication channels to ensure that all members of the team are aligned on project objectives and understand responsibilities. Encourage open discussion to empower everyone on the team and inspire them to share resources and expertise—elements that can both create a winning proposal and, if funded, drive impactful research.

NSF Engines insights: An illustration

UIDP member Jackson State University (JSU) leads one of the inaugural Phase 1 NSF Regional Innovation Engines development awards. The NSF program funds coalitions of researchers, institutions, companies, and other community groups to pursue specific research topics. In a recent conversation with UIDP, Joseph Whittaker, vice president for research and economic development at JSU, described how his institution built its award-winning team and its ongoing efforts to develop new partnerships to support the work.

The NSF Engine is pursuing research on the topic, “Advancing food security and climate resilience.” The team will spend the next 18 months building partnerships to advance the sustainable innovation food industry ecosystem in the state.

While the project involves work with farmers in the region, “We chose to be more comprehensive in the approach so we can bring diverse resources and knowledge capital together,” Whittaker said. JSU partnered with the University of Southern Mississippi to wrap in aquaculture, an area of strength for that institution, which will support the project’s goals for research to mitigate food scarcity and climate effects.

“There’s an opportunity for the universities and all our external partners to come together with expertise to address this issue in a comprehensive way,” Whittaker said. Whittaker emphasized the importance of leveraging partners’ strengths to overcome specific gaps, engaging local partners, and understanding each other’s goals and needs when building the team. “We’re all trying to do something a little bigger than ourselves,” he said. “And collaboration is the key.”

Why it matters

Winning a large, publicly funded award can be transformational—for principal investigators, for institutions, and for society when the research results in beneficial outcomes. Building winning teams is essential for success because the world’s most pressing challenges require multi-sector, collaborative research to enable ambitious, transformative breakthroughs. The hard work of identifying the right people, opening communication and convening channels, and building a competitive team can result in projects with lasting impact—and opens the door for future opportunities to partner.

We want to hear from you. What is your organization’s strategy for building proposal-winning teams? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.