While the brightest spotlight shines on the BEAD Program at NTIA, there is another substantive funding opportunity currently open for applications – the NSF Engines Program. Under NSF’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate, this program will provide up to $160 million to partnership groups – or “Engines” – to catalyze innovation ecosystems across the US, nurturing diverse talent, promoting economic growth, and solving societal issues via regional technological innovation and research and development. 

More on Engines

NSF defines an Engine as a “regionally-centered multi-sector coalition of partners and stakeholders across industry, academia, government, and non-profit organizations working together in a topic area of regional relevance, as well as national and societal significance, and led by a full-time CEO.” Engines have the flexibility to determine their structure based on their region and the region’s needs. 

The eligibility criteria to apply for this program is much wider than other NSF programs! Nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, universities, and colleges in the US can apply to create and run an NSF Engine. Because of the significant scope of this program, it presents a meaningful opportunity for community-based organizations (and partners) across the country to shape the technological and economic development landscape for years to come. Applicants are encouraged to adopt a “start-up mentality” and high tolerance for risk in pursuit of funding from this program.

Review the following two figures to gain a better understanding of NSF Engines. 

Fig. 1: Characteristics of an NSF Engine 

Source: NSF Webinar “Introduction to the NSF Regional Innovation Engines Program”

Fig. 2: Engine Structure

Source: NSF Webinar “Introduction to the NSF Regional Innovation Engines Program”

Defining Engine Regions

A main driver for the Engines Program is to stimulate innovation-driven economic growth that will also solve societal problems in regions that don’t have well-established innovation ecosystems. Applicants can decide the scope of their region but should know that the NSF is particularly interested in contiguous areas to serve the defined area’s needs.

Moreover, applicants need to consider available resources, capabilities, and topical/economic relevance when determining a region. Partnerships across the region, especially those with key stakeholders for the chosen topic, are crucial for the success of the proposal and Engine. Above all, the NSF Engines program will prioritize regions without well-established innovation ecosystems. Regions with a well-established innovation ecosystem, or with a history of investment in innovation, will not be competitive as a lead applicant but are encouraged to serve as mentors to other regions.   

Award Types Overview 

The Engines Program encompasses two types of awards: 

Type 1- Up to $1 Million for up to 2 years

The Type 1 awards are meant to lay the groundwork for establishing a new NSF Engine in the region for a given topic area and help prepare applicants to eventually apply for a Type 2 award. It is not required to receive a Type I award ahead of receiving a Type 2. 

Type 2 – Up to $160 Million for up to 10 years

The Type 2 awards are meant to have an established engine that creates firm partner and stakeholder commitments and seeks continuing growth of its innovation ecosystem through expansion of scientific, technical, education, and workforce development. 

An applicant can only apply for one type of award as the lead, but entities can be listed as partners on multiple proposals for either type of award. 

Concept outlines for both types of awards can be submitted through June 30, 2022. The Letter of Intent (LOI) for Type-1 awards is due on August 31, and full proposals for Type I awards are due on September 29, 2022. Deadlines have not yet been released for letters of intent or full proposals for Type 2 awards, though they are anticipated to be due in fiscal year 2023. Moreover, Figure 3 shows the relation between awards and NSF’s five-phase model of planning and building an innovation ecosystem. Learn more about the model here.

Fig. 3: Proposal Types

Source: NSF Webinar “Introduction to the NSF Regional Innovation Engines Program”

Important Considerations for Applicants

The NSF wants the Engines to support workforce development at all levels – from practitioners to researchers. The driving research component should address a major societal challenge or improve our global competitiveness in STEM. Efforts should also be made to include historically underrepresented populations in genuine partnership with the Engine. 

Each Engine needs to:

  • Plan R&D innovation to achieve regional economic growth;
  • Build an inclusive innovation ecosystem; 
  • Possess a flexible engine structure and activities with accountability to NSF.

The applicants must consider the underlying goals of the NSF Engines program when making this selection. The topic needs to be use-inspired, address a societal problem while being a good fit for the regional economy, and create pathways for new business opportunities. Mentoring from experienced regions to the Engine is also encouraged. Furthermore, Type 2 applicants should have a plan for the NSF Engine to be self-sustaining by the end of the award period.

To promote collaboration and build cohesive applications, NSF will host Regional Roadshows where attendees can learn more about the program, hear from tech and innovation experts, and join interactive breakout rooms to converse with other innovators in the region. The main driver behind these Roadshows is to have interested participants match with others in the region to collaborate on proposals. Those interested in applying are encouraged to attend! Find out when/where roadshows are scheduled here

Special note to those that have submitted a proposal for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBRC): The NSF and EDA are working to examine BBRC proposals because NSF is interested in identifying and building the innovative ideas contained within those proposals. It is within the realm of possibilities to obtain both awards. 

Next Up

NSF’s TIP program managers are making themselves available to answer questions about the Engines Program to applicants. You can sign up for a timeslot here

Additionally, NSF plans to host a “Proposers Day,” for applicants whose concept papers have been approved to foster teaming and collaboration among interested parties. Applicants can look forward to quick feedback on concept outlines (before the Type 1 Letter of Intent deadline). The Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) includes all the details and information needed to apply. 

Click Here to Access the BAA

If you are interested, please also review these other sources for more on the Regional Engines program: 

Are you looking for other federal funding opportunities? Please visit our Federal Funding Opportunities page and use our newly launched tool to navigate the different grant programs. Questions and comments can be sent to [email protected]