Kern Family Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

OVERVIEW: The Kern Family Foundation believes in maintaining the United States’ competitive international edge, and that the key to that goal in higher education is through a focus on STEM, specifically engineering. Kern is prioritizes tangible innovations and large-scale, systemic efforts.

IP TAKE: Kern rewards big-picture, market-minded thinking in engineering, but its KEEN network offers only a handful of large awards per year, limits eligibility to individuals and organizations in its network, and accepts applications by invitation only.

PROFILE: The Kern Family Foundation was established in the 1990s by Robert and Patricia Kern of Waukesha, Wisconsin. The Kerns sold off one division of their family business, generator manufacturer Generac Power Systems, and used the proceeds to build the foundation. In 2006, the Kerns sold the balance of the company and directed some of the profits toward the foundation. Kern’s mission includes “promoting the value of work, developing the formation of good character, increasing educational achievement—particularly in science, technology, engineering and math—and instilling an entrepreneurial mindset, especially in undergraduate engineering students” by focusing on “systemic change” and “funding broad impact, long-term programs.” Its focus areas include Good Character, Quality Education, Entrepreneurial Mindset, and Meaningful Work.

Kern pursues its higher education mission through its Entrepreneurial Mindset program, and more specifically through the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN). The foundation describes KEEN as “a collaborative partnership of colleges and universities dedicated to graduating engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset so they can create personal, economic, and societal value through a lifetime of meaningful work.” KEEN pursues its goals by hosting meetings and conferences throughout the year, and by awarding three classes of grants:

  • Institutional grants aim to “foster relationships between colleges within the university” or “engage the entire engineering student body” with the goal of effecting a “permanent institutional change consistent with the broad mission of the KEEN Program.”

  • Topical grants are smaller in scale (typically $8,000-$40,000) and “provide a [tangible] deliverable that will jointly further our shared mission and is readily transferable to other members of the Network.” Applicants for topical grants must either “have attended a KEEN Meeting or Conference” or work for an institution within the KEEN network (and either be in the engineering department or have close ties to it).

  • Small group grant proposals “are intended to stimulate thought and discussion within the Network” and must be initiated by “a faculty member from an institution with an active institutional grant.”

Neither KEEN nor the Kern Family foundation have a public grants database, nor do they generally make known their grant amounts. Kern and KEEN prefer to work with their established partners and do not accept unsolicited proposals.


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