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Pioneering Partnerships: NSF and Industry Forge New Collaborations in Sustainable Polymers

May 14, 2024—Two weeks ago, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) published a new program solicitation, Molecular Foundations for Sustainability: Sustainable Polymers Enabled by Emerging Data Analytics (MFS-SPEED). This unique program is supported by the NSF mathematical and physical science directorates and most notably five industry partners: UIDP members Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, BASF, Dow, and IBM. This solicitation is a result of a collaboration sparked at the November 2022 UIDP workshop sponsored by the NSF Chemistry Directorate, Aligning Interests in Support of Chemistry Research. The new industry-co-funded program looks to accelerate the discovery and manufacturing of sustainable polymers while facilitating cross-sector and cross-disciplinary research.

Traditional pathways – government to university or industry to university – will remain but in seeking accelerated pathways for discovery to innovation, academia, companies, government, and nonprofits will continue to aggressively pursue new modalities for achieving this desired outcome.

The road to a new solicitation

The workshop convened a strategic set of representatives from industry, academia, nonprofits, and government to identify areas of mutual interest in which companies could co-invest for use-inspired research. Both companies and government agencies tend to work separately with universities, though NSF and a few other agencies have increasingly partnered with companies to co-develop and co-fund solicitations. UIDP surveyed workshop participants and identified two main barriers to joint solicitations: differing timelines and the handling of intellectual property (IP). To address these issues, industry proposed a streamlined 11-month timeline from initial discussions with co-funders until the start of research projects. For IP, they agreed that detailed discussions of IP are premature and that IP terms should be addressed after the research focus area is determined. (See more on joint solicitations in this previous 3-Minute Read).

With pre-competitive research in mind, the workshop participants identified specific, potential research focus areas of high value to the chemical industry: enabling platforms for polymer characterization, decarbonization through recycling and upcycling, recycling education, and resources to develop cross-functional skills between chemists and data scientists. Goals and next steps to achieve them were also formulated, including identifying companies interested in co-funding the research with NSF.

The new MFS-SPEED program anticipates making four to six awards of up to $2 million and lasting up to three years. The total funding amount includes a $500,000 in-kind contribution from IBM in the form of software as a service. The solicitation specifically seeks collaborative research teams that transcend disciplines, with specific emphasis on projects that include insights from data analytics, including AI and machine learning. Letters of intent for this program are due Dec. 5, 2024, and full proposals are due by Jan. 16, 2025. In addition to funding contributions, the industry partners may also arrange to fund personnel from within their company to work alongside the award recipients on their project and provide resources, non-proprietary data, and opportunities like seminars and internships to award recipients. The arrangement allows the companies to benefit from NSF’s solicitation and award application process while giving academic researchers unmatched opportunities to benefit from industry-sponsored research.

Implications for future joint solicitations

Joint solicitations like the MFS-SPEED program offer benefits to all parties involved, especially when the formulation of the joint solicitation considers industry priorities. These types of partnerships allow NSF and companies to leverage funding sources to support research in areas of interest and societal importance. Positive outcomes from this solicitation may lead to future agreements with the joining companies. Successful joint solicitations like the MFS-SPEED program can also draw more industry attention to similar co-funded programs. Ultimately, joint solicitations further emphasize the importance of cross-sector collaborations and their ability to leverage varying resources, expertise, and ideas to enhance research outcomes and create lasting impact.

Why it matters

This week, UIDP and NSF are hosting another workshop focused on the Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program, which will explore other research areas where government agencies and companies can partner. Meanwhile, the MFS-SPEED solicitation is a first for chemical companies collaborating on an NSF-funded program to make fundamental progress on an industry-wide research problem. If successful, the program’s learnings will lay the groundwork for future partnerships and create more impact through the increased resources and perspectives contributed by the partners. Beyond the initial research awards, the vision is for models like this to become a more common mechanism for collaboration between academia, industry, and government agencies to drive innovation, economic growth, and societal impact.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about the MFS-SPEED solicitation? 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.