The world was ready to use a better surgical glue. Pittsburgh wasn't. The owners of Cohera Medical, a startup based on an invention by a University of Pittsburgh chemical engineer, decided to move to the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

The National Science Foundation rolled out a huge new funding program to stop that type of exodus. Its goal is to help communities far from the country's best known high-tech meccas build their capacity to turn research by local scientists into new companies and well-paying jobs that will bolster the regional economy.

The largest cash awards in the foundation's history will be given to each of the five regions that want to create their own version of Silicon Valley. Experts in the field say that a key measure of success is whether companies like Cohera can find everything they need to prosper without having to flee their birthplaces.

Evan Facher, vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh, says that the medical center is one of the top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health. We can't nurture them so they go to Boston or San Francisco.

“A new direction”

The primary role of the National Science Foundation is to support the best non medical academic research, but it has also pioneered programs with a more applied bent. The Small Business Innovation Research program began in 1977 and the Innovation Corps was launched in 2011. The first program to tackle the geographic distribution of federal research dollars was its established program. Facher says the new innovation engines program will surpass anything that has been done before.

It is up to eight times the funding given to the current research centers, and for twice as long. The new engines have different goals. The program is moving in a different direction, according to Deborah Altenburg, who tracks federal science policy for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

The vice president for research at Northern Illinois University likes the fact that the National Science Foundation has an ambitious goal that meshes with what his institution hopes to achieve with its small but growing pot of federal research dollars. He cautions that NSF will have to work very hard to make it a reality.

He says that the engines are more focused on economic development than anything else. I hope that they don't diminish the ability of the National Science Foundation to support curiosity-driven research.

According to the announcement, the program is designed to serve regions without well-established innovation ecosystems. The experts say that the ecosystems have four essential components.

One or more universities that get a lot of federal research dollars are the first. The second culture encourages academic researchers to think like entrepreneurs when they make a discovery with commercial potential. The third is access to money, talent, and know-how to perfect ideas and connect with customers. A skilled regional labor force and a roster of companies that can put them to work is the fourth. The elements must be knitted together into a partnership.

Josh Carpenter, CEO of Southern Research, a nonprofit contract research organization that also manages technology transfer for its neighbor, the University of Alabama, said that they like to call it singing from the same hymnal.

The region's top employer is the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, which is barely 50 years old. Carpenter says that the eds and meds have been enough to assure a healthy innovation ecosystems.

He says that federal support hasn't translated into well-paying jobs for local people.

Laying the groundwork

The engines will be the flagship program of the new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, and the National Science Foundation has asked Congress for $200 million for the next fiscal year. Congress rejected a similar request for the current fiscal year, but it will be several months before NSF gets an answer. NSF decided to proceed cautiously.

50 grants for $1 million will be given to communities to make them capable of operating an engine. Anypelling societal challenge is a fair game according to the agency. Papers must be submitted by June and full proposals by September.

The deadline for proposals will be in fiscal 2023, but the schedule for the second round of the competition has not been announced. It hasn't said how it expects applicants to allocate their money. Some clues can be found in the list of criteria it plans to use to rank the proposals.

In addition to being judged on the standard categories of intellectual merit and broader impacts, the proposers must describe how the research is driven by societal or economic challenges and offer a credible plan to move research to practice.

Better geographic diversity

The story of his medical startup shows why the initiative is needed. He started Cohera Medical in 2006 with Michael Buckley, who was an oral surgeon at the dental school. It was either die or start a company, according to Beckman.

The company had to do it on its own, and neither the university nor local leaders helped. The initial investors came from far away, as did the small workforce that was assembled to get approval from the FDA.

That happened in 2015. The company, which had been bought by the global investment firm KKR & Co., Inc., announced it was expanding and moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, nestled within the region's booming Research Triangle Park.

The company's CEO told local media that Pittsburgh has been great for them, but they need to move to Raleigh.

The expansion plan included the development and marketing of a bowel sealant. Hundreds of patients were able to leave the hospital without a drain because of Beckman's superglue. The company ran out of money and was forced to shut down after gaining FDA approval for the second sealant.

The demise of a startup is not new. After leaving his senior management post in 2009, Beckman remained a consultant to the company and thinks that a local investor might have been less aggressive and given the company more time to find its footing.

The company's collapse was caused by the lack of the necessary conditions, including low-cost lab space, plentiful job opportunities for skilled tech workers, and connections to local investors, according to Facher. He is hopeful that the engines program will help western Pennsylvania and other parts of the country.

He says that an economy built around a few high-tech hubs on the East and West coasts is not sustainable.

Going big

The only federal agency pursuing that goal is the NSF. A $1 billion program to create regional industry clusters with 60 planning grants was launched by the U.S. Department of Commerce in December. Pitt is a member of a winning southwestern Pennsylvania consortium that is centered on artificial intelligence and robotics.

The winners of the first round are competing for a number of individual grants. The Commerce Department gave $500,000 in initial planning awards, and observers expect similar competition for the NSF program.

Facher says his university is likely to be involved in the bid.