Published: Aug. 17, 2023 By

CU Boulder is a founding partner of the CO-WY Engine, one of 16 finalists for the National Science Foundation’s inaugural “NSF Regional Innovation Engines” competition, which could net winners $160 million over 10 years.

With the CO-WY Engine, stakeholders in Colorado and Wyoming are focused on driving technological innovation, community resilience and sustainable advancement. CU Boulder and CU Denver are among several research universities in the region guiding and supporting those efforts. The initiative is a member of the larger NSF Regional Innovation Engines program, which sprang out of the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022,” federal legislation to accelerate U.S. leadership and competitiveness in innovation.

The CO-WY Engine’s grant proposal, “Scaling the Regional, Technology-Driven, Innovation Ecosystem in Climate Solutions and Community Resiliency in Colorado and Wyoming” was led by Innosphere Ventures and is focused on fostering a regional innovation ecosystem of cutting-edge products and services that takes on societal and economic challenges. In addition to research universities, this includes partnering with several community colleges and federal labs, regional economic development organizations, policy- and community-focused entities, industry partners, investors and startup accelerators.

That level of regional collaboration makes the CO-WY Engine a strong candidate for the award, according to Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director for Venture Partners at CU Boulder. “The critical factor that makes this successful is the multidisciplinary, multi-sector partnerships, and I think that’s what the Colorado-Wyoming Engine has done really well,” he said. 

It’s not just the number of collaborators that’s important but the fact that there is diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility among the ideas and opportunities, said Rees. “The CO-WY Engine is engaging stakeholders who are most impacted by climate-related problems like drought and wildfire, making sure those stakeholders are a part of designing the Engine, and making sure they’re a part of receiving the Engine’s benefits as well,” he said. 

Solving today’s challenges

The NSF Engines program is investing in U.S.-based STEM research and development and is focused on funding regional hubs that will increase the speed and scale of emerging, critical and use-inspired technology (such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, advanced wireless and biotechnology), to drive industry and boost job growth and ultimately, according to NSF, “solve the grand challenges of our time.”

“That’s really important within our region, which is in the throes of a 30-year mega-drought, but it’s also all over the world, really,” said Rees. “We’re facing aridification and wildfires, and if we can respond even just a little bit faster or have more resilient structures, better communication strategies, better sensing, all of that can actually be the difference between life and death for people.”

The CO-WY Engine proposes to tackle existing and emerging challenges by translating environmental monitoring technologies and predictive analytics into decision-support systems. They project that work will align a growing workforce with the needs of the “climate tech” economy and create “equitable, prosperous and environmentally resilient communities,” according to Innosphere Ventures.

Moving solutions from lab to society

Innovations are great but not particularly effective if they never emerge from universities in a practical way. That’s part of what makes CU Boulder a “powerful contributor to the Engine,” said Rees. The university has proven strengths in translating innovations into real-world applications. He pointed specifically to the work emerging from CU Boulder’s Earth Lab and the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering & Resilience, both key contributors to the CO-WY Engine proposal. 

Rees added that CU Boulder’s track record in launching startups is another huge asset to the CO-WY Engine’s mission to find and implement widespread, impactful solutions. “Colorado is known for creating new businesses, creating new startups, especially those that spin out of the research institutions—and CU Boulder drives that. So we’re taking that pipeline of startup creation and applying it to the climate resilience research in the Engine, which will be expanding and strengthening it further.”

And the winner is…

NSF recently chose the 16 Engine finalists from an original pool of 188 concept outlines for proposals. Teams were interviewed and evaluated on the proposed leadership’s ability to rapidly mobilize in the first two years of funding, competitive advantage, budget and resources for the planned research and workforce development efforts.

NSF will visit finalists over the next two months to assess risks, committed resources and each team’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. NSF expects to choose a handful of winners of the competition this winter. Each chosen NSF Engine will receive roughly $15 million over the first two years of funding and up to $160 million over the next decade.