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Investing in the Endless Frontier for the 21st Century

Written by François Baneyx / June 29, 2021
UW Virology Lab

Researchers in the UW Virology Lab process tests for coronavirus in 2020.

Dear friends of CoMotion,

While the pandemic quieted the buzz of tens of thousands of students on our campuses, the UW research engine continued to roar. Our talented faculty won over $1.23 billion in federal awards during the previous fiscal year – more than any other public university in the nation. These awards are being used to explore uncharted territory, create new knowledge, and translate discoveries into innovations that feed our economy and make a difference in the state of Washington and beyond.

Take Icosovax as a case study. The Institute for Protein Design spinoff harnessed fundamental research in the labs of Profs. King and Baker on the design of atomically precise protein cages to create a new class of highly potent and highly stable vaccines. Icosovax, which raised $100M in a Series B financing in April, recently announced a partnership with South Korea’s SK bioscience and a $173M award from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to conduct phase 3 clinical trials of a new COVID-19 vaccine. This formulation may be especially well-suited for deployment in low- and middle-income countries where distribution and cold chain integrity remains challenging.

Or consider Zap Energy, a spinoff from the UW department of Aeronautics & Astronautics that secured $27.5M in a Series B financing in May to continue their quest to build stable fusion reactors and usher in a sustainable source of clean energy for the world. Zap Energy’s ability to contain plasma using sheared hydrodynamic flows instead of magnets or lasers was born of fundamental research funded by the Department of Energy and performed at the Flow Z-Pinch Lab under Prof. Uri Shumlak, with Research Professor Brian Nelson and their colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Wherever we look across the UW innovation landscape, we find deep connections between groundbreaking scholarly endeavors and startups with extraordinary potential for economic and societal impact. This is why I am encouraged by a presidential budget that places science front and center and recommends increased funding for most federal agencies that support the country’s R&D enterprise. But I am most excited about the Endless Frontier provisions of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), a bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in early June.

Science, The Endless Frontier was the title of the visionary report that Vannevar Bush transmitted to President Roosevelt in July 1945. Dr. Bush, an electrical engineer who directed U.S. government research during the Second World War, was making a bold case for government support of science as essential to public welfare. The report led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.”

While the mission of the NSF has expanded over the years to support fundamental research and education in all non-medical fields of science and engineering, its budget has not followed suit. The USICA rectifies the issue by authorizing a $9.8 billion increase to fund core NSF programs over five years and $29 billion to create a Directorate for Technology and Innovation. The new Directorate would develop multifaceted programs that build capacity, workforce, infrastructure, and effective commercialization paths for basic and applied research discoveries in technology areas ranging from AI, quantum information systems, robotics, and advanced materials to biotechnology and natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention and mitigation.

At CoMotion, we work with changemakers every day, and we know that many innovations may not have seen the light of day had it not been for federal funding. Just yesterday, the House passed its version of a legislative package aimed at boosting U.S. scientific competitiveness, setting the stage for final negotiations with the Senate. As the legislative process continues, we look forward to seeing provisions that help move fundamental science discoveries from lab to market become a reality. Since the Second World War, federal support for scientific research has enabled countless technological advances and delivered extraordinary improvements in people’s lives. While companies and startups are still reaping the fruits of this investment, isn’t it time for another bold move, another investment in the endless frontier for the 21st Century?

Be well!


Signature of Francois Baneyx

François Baneyx
UW Vice Provost for Innovation and Director of CoMotion