Amazon – the new research council?

Amazon is funding innovation in a university. Is this the future?
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Supporting bold and risky “ugly ducklings”

Duckling. Ugly
Duckling. Ugly

Universities are crucibles of innovation and academic staff and researchers are strongly focussed on developing new ideas. Significant sums of money are also often invested in pump-priming or competitions for innovative approaches to tackling particular research problems. This can be through internal allocations of resource, through research councils or indeed targeted government initiatives.. Private sector or philanthropic investments tend to be to focused on supporting very specific research problems.

Or, as in the case of this new technology fund just announced by UCL, funds can be targeted at maximising commercial opportunities:

The Fund will be used to support academics whose research has commercial potential, with funding for early stage proof of concept, licensing projects and new spinout companies.

This is the first investment fund that UCL has launched to commercialise its multidisciplinary research and it will support innovations from academics in all areas of the university, including life sciences, engineering and information communication technology.

The Fund will provide both financing and support to take projects through the whole development journey from proof of concept to commercialisation.

It’s certainly a big investment. But the other interesting announcement in this area recently related to Amazon. What I thought was interesting about the Amazon story is that an investment (albeit smaller than UCL’s) in unspecified innovation activity is being funded by Amazon as the Chronicle reports:

Amazon, the online technology and retail giant, plans to give money to University of Washington faculty members, students, or anybody on a campus who has a “bold, risky” idea for making the world a better place.

A new grant program, announced on Thursday, takes aim at ugly-duckling research projects that have a big upside but are too nascent or implausible to win the attentions of federal grantmakers or venture capitalists.

Amazon will provide $2 million initially for the grants, and the director of the program will be an Amazon employee, according to a legal agreement signed last spring. Individual grants will be worth anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, said Vikram Jandhyala, the university’s vice provost for innovation.

The barriers for entry are purposefully low. There is no fixed application window. Anybody who works for the university, attends courses there, or is otherwise affiliated with the University of Washington is eligible to apply.

That does not mean Amazon does not stand to benefit strategically. While all copyrights and patents that grow out of the research will be owned by the university, Amazon will have permission to reproduce, modify, and sell any of the work relating to a grant — including any “pre-existing work” that a grantee incorporates into a project.

Bold ideas wanted

There’s a bit more detail in the Seattle Times:

Catalyst’s grants won’t be limited to computer science. It’s looking for research projects in any discipline — the humanities, social sciences and the arts, as well as well-funded research fields such as medicine and engineering. The only criterion is that the research must address a complex challenge.

“The general guidelines (for proposals are) they need to be bold. They need to be creative,” Siegel said.

So will this kind of investment deliver the kind of bold, risky and creative ideas which Amazon and the University of Washington hope? And will Amazon (and UCL) see a return on its investment? Time will tell.

One response to “Amazon – the new research council?

  1. The term “Communities of Practice” and the considerable (and credible) research on workplace learning by Lave & Wenger came about in part through research funded by Xerox. They were having trouble with people struggling to learn how to use their photocopiers and causing faults and damaged machines…sometimes private funding can produce valid results & output!

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