With a New Campus Grants Program, Amazon Aims to Foster Entrepreneurs

Amazon.com recenty announced a new initiative that seeks to elevate philosophical dorm room conversations into practical projects that tackle real-world problems. The Amazon Catalyst grant program is launching at the University of Washington, which is located in the backyard of the Seattle-based online retail giant.

Grants ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 will be awarded for projects that span a period of three months to two years. The funding is aimed at backing “bold, globally impactful, disruptive projects” that develop solutions for issues such as climate change, computer security, and immigration. Any intellectual property rights that arise through the program, including patents and copyrights, will belong to the University of Washington; Amazon gets nonexclusive license to the IP.

Recognizing that innovation may come from any field, Amazon opened the program to all members of the University of Washington community across all disciplines: students, professors, staff members, and more. Presumably, even a genius janitor who wanders the halls anonymously solving complex math problems on chalkboards could apply.

The submission process requires prospective fellows to explain what problem they’re addressing and to describe the proposed solution, but it also asks who will benefit and why now is the time to tackle the issue. In keeping with Amazon’s corporate requirement that product developers write hypothetical press releases before beginning new projects, Catalyst applicants must imagine the public announcement that would accompany the project’s launch.

“Creating a hypothetical press release helps you clarify your thinking, provides a high-level overview of your project, and explains who would benefit and how they would benefit,” according to Catalyst’s FAQ page.

Proposals are accepted on a rolling basis, and at this point even the program doesn’t know how many awards will be given out each year. Catalyst wants to bankroll creative ideas that would otherwise be too conceptual to attract venture capital funding or too out of the box to qualify for federal research dollars. However many projects are deemed worthy by the Amazon Catalyst Evaluation Committee will be funded.

We’ve written before about past criticisms of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ perceived lackluster philanthropic work, but as we noted, the tech titan has stepped up his charitable efforts in recent years. Bezos has supported K-12 education, health research, and arts and culture, while Amazon rolled out it's Smile giving program a while back. Now there's Amazon Catalyst.

While the initial goal of Amazon Catalyst is to foster Seattle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, the program is open to people at the UW Tacoma and Bothell campuses as well. And it intends to expand to other universities eventually, so people associated with academic institutions should start dreaming up their bold ideas for solving global problems.