Competitive seed grants for the most innovative ideas

Innovation Awards are designed to stimulate the most creative, out-of-the-box research ideas and provide funding for faculty to pursue entirely new avenues of inquiry without knowing where they might lead. These kinds of high-risk, high-reward projects have the most potential to transform human health, but it’s nearly impossible to pursue them in today’s funding climate because they’re passed over
for safe, incremental research.

These awards are competitive seed grants to fuel “shoot-for-the-moon” ideas that don’t yet have the preliminary data needed to receive federal grants. With them, faculty can leverage the results to move into new fields and generate enough data to garner stable federal funding. Expendable philanthropic gifts will enable us to award more than 300 of these modest seed grants over the next 10 years to fuel disruptive research projects in two categories:

Discovery Innovation Awards ignite curiosity-driven basic research on the fundamental mechanics of life and are available to all faculty members in Stanford’s 11 basic science departments. Learn more about the Awards and their ongoing impact.

Translational & Clinical Awards stimulate interdisciplinary “bench-to-bedside” research to move basic science discoveries from the lab into the clinic. They are available to all School of Medicine faculty.

I’m studying bird brains to help kids who have problems controlling attention.

Eric Knudsen, PhD
Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in the School of Medicine and Professor of Neurobiology

My team and I applied for a Discovery Award because we were frustrated after five painful years of rejection from federal funding  agencies. We had devised a completely new method for exploring the root causes of psychiatric disorders associated with the inability to control attention, like schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD, but we didn’t have a track record in those particular fields.

This new method allows us to study how neurons in different par ts of a chicken’s brain work together to control where a bird looks and how it pays attention to what it sees. We knew if we could prove that the new method worked, the results would inform future experiments with mammals, which could lead to an understanding of what goes awry in humans afflicted with these devastating psychiatric disorders.

After the faculty committee reviewed our proposal, we received a two-year $180,200 grant. In less than a year we had generated enough data to earn a prestigious $1.2 million, five-year NIH grant to take our research to the next level. If it weren’t for our Discovery Award, we never could have pursued this promising new approach.

The basic science funding crisis

Today's biomedical innovations are possible only because of fundamental research conducted decades ago. As national funding priorities shift toward applied research, basic scientists face the most challenging funding landscape in 50 years. Investing in their work – and in basic science in general – is crucial to keeping the #NextGreatDiscovery alive.

Nobel Prize winner Michael Levitt, PhD, on current federal funding crisis

Microbiolody and Immunology professor Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, on the tipping point in biomedicine


Header image: An image from Dr. Knudsen’s lab of networks of neurons in the optic tectum of a young chick, an area of the brain that helps control vision and attention.