Kern Family Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

OVERVIEW: The Kern Family Foundation believes strongly in maintaining the United States’ competitive international edge, and that the key to that goal in higher ed is through a focus on STEM, especifically engineering. Kern is focused on fostering an “entrepreneurial mindset” among engineers that goes beyond imparting technical skills, and translates into tangible innovations. Higher ed grants are awarded out of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) and focus on large-scale, systemic efforts. The foundation has also given awards to individual faculty members.

IP TAKE: Kern certainly rewards big-picture, market-minded thinking in engineering, but its KEEN network gives out 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.”

Kern pursues its higher ed 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.” Not satisfied with skills training alone, Kern is dedicated to increasing the number of engineers who show traits like curiosity, the ability to make strong connections between data points, and the capacity to translate their knowledge into valuable and useful innovations.

All of this is concentrated into what Kern calls an “entrepreneurial mindset” that, when combined with the proper skills training, aims to achieve KEEN’s four “cornerstones…[of] (1) business acumen, (2) customer engagement, (3) technical fundamentals, and (4) societal values” among undergraduate engineering students.

The Kern Family Foundation aims for large-scale, long-term impact, and collaboration between members of its network is paramount. As such, its awards are sizeable but few in number, and its network of KEEN institutions is likewise limited (the full list of partner institutions can be seen in the drop-down menu on the top right-hand side of the KEEN home page).

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 which must be initiated by “a faculty member from an institution with an active institutional grant.”

KEEN has awarded institutional and topical grants to a variety of initiatives to reach those goals, primarily through universities’ and individual professors’ engineering curriculum development, especially that which incorporates an entrepreneurial dimension. Specific areas of engineering to receive funding have included everything from chemistry to the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), more commonly called drones.

KEEN also recognizes one faculty member from its network per year through an annual Outstanding Faculty Award, which is presented at a KEEN meeting.

Beyond higher education, the foundation supports a number of K-12 programs, particularly charter-related organizations, through its Education and Good Character programs.

Unfortunately, KEEN does not accept unsolicited proposals, making it tough for new grantees to get their foot in the door.

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