From a Tech Pioneer's Foundation, Millions to "Try Out New Ideas"

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s new Inventor Fellowship strikes closer to its namesake’s home than a lot of its other funding. 

That’s not to say the Moores’ philanthropy in areas like marine microbiology or protecting the Amazon aren’t dear to the donors’ hearts. But giving to someone early in their career who has an idea for a tool or technology that can accelerate progress calls to mind a young Intel co-founder’s work to build better microchips.

The foundation just announced the first five winners of the fellowship, each landing an award of $825,000 over three years to “give them freedom to try out new ideas.” The initial pool of eligible candidates covers AAU member research universities in the U.S., plus 15 additional medical schools, where winners must be faculty or staff. The fellowship is looking at a combination of the individuals and their specific ideas, but is also open to risks and unexpected turns, funding early-stage ideas rather than developed products that might otherwise land investment. 

Winners can use the funds to buy themselves out of other commitments to work on their ideas, or to pay for salaries, equipment and supplies. All in all, Moore is looking to put $33.75 million to the program over 10 years, backing 50 inventors.

Funding early career researchers is a popular draw for science funders, giving a leg up to bright minds trying to carve out their paths in a challenging funding environment. Tighter public science budgets can be hard on early-career researchers. And especially so if they are pursuing risky ideas. 

Howard Hughes Medical Institute has run a variety of programs backing early career scientists, as has the Simons Foundation and others. This one’s a little different, and hews a bit closer to the philanthropy of the Lemelson Foundation or even the Dyson Award, focusing on developing a tool or process that the creator might eventually patent and market (a path to commercialization is not a requirement, however).

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Another thing to note: The focus here is on young inventors, but it does still stick to some of the key programmatic goals of the Moore Foundation—advancing research, environmental conservation, and patient care. 

So as the funder announces the first round this week, who are these talented tinkerers?

One new fellow from the University of Texas, Austin, Deji Akinwande, is particularly relevant in that the electrical and computer engineer is working on a new silicon-based material that could drastically increase energy efficiency for computer chips. 

Shane Ardo of UC Irvine is a chemist developing new materials that can increase output and efficiency of electrochemical technologies. Ardo’s research has applications in water desalination, solar power, and batteries. 

And then there’s the invisibility cloak (what, no lightsaber?). OK, so Xingjie Ni from Penn State is actually working on new quantum light technology with many possible applications, including quantum computing—and optical camouflage is one possible use. 

Another holy grail of bioscience is overcoming the looming danger of antibiotic resistance. If Joanna Slusky of the University of Kansas can advance her invention, it could mean a protein to restore bacteria’s sensitivity to antibiotics.

And the fifth Inventor fellow is Mona Jarrahi of UCLA, who is working on a new imaging tool to observe biological molecules, applicable in any number of research areas. 

While the fellowships are a new endeavor for Moore, there are some very familiar threads among the winners that reflect the funder’s ongoing priorities. For one, Moore has a lot of interest in imaging technology, so it won’t be surprising to see more of those inventions in the mix. Same thing goes for materials science and quantum physics. 

Another major priority for Moore is data science, and while there are technologies here that could advance computing technology, it would be unsurprising to see some fellows down the line that more directly help academics crunch massive numbers.