Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

A group led by Virginia Tech has been named one of 34 semifinalists in the National Science Foundation’s new Regional Innovation Engines competition, taking another step toward the university possibly receiving tens of millions of dollars in new funding.

The NSF said it plans to name finalists in July and announce the list of award recipients this fall. Each chosen NSF Engine will receive about $15 million for two years and could receive up to $160 million total over 10 years, with actual amounts dependent on annual assessments, the NSF said in a news release.

“NSF Engines aspire to catalyze robust partnerships to positively impact the economy within a geographic region, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness and create local, high-wage jobs across the country,” the foundation said.

Virginia Tech’s competition entry is in the area of logistics and supply chains and is titled “Driving America’s Future Supply Chain for Resiliency and Equity from Dock to Door.”

“We are looking to create a Regional Innovation Engine that supports a national model of freight transport to increase efficiency, certainty, sustainability and equity in the journey of the package from dock to door, and create new sources of innovation, new workforce programs, create an economic driver and hopefully a flywheel for sustainable regional growth,” said Brandy Salmon, associate vice president of innovation and partnerships at Virginia Tech.

Salmon declined to discuss specific details of the proposal, citing the competitive nature of the NSF program.

“At the moment we want to keep our heads down, focus on the work ahead; it is a competitive process,” she said.

NSF spokesperson Mike England declined to provide a copy of Virginia Tech’s proposal, saying, “[W]e do not share award applications publicly for proprietary reasons.”

But Salmon said the project would involve advances in shipping logistics, freight and vehicle transportation, on the ground and in the air, across all delivery points in a supply chain as goods move to customers.

“There are many points along that journey from dock to door where advances in next-generation technologies can make a difference,” Salmon said.

The Virginia Tech-led proposal involves a number of partner schools and businesses throughout Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Details on the roles the various partners would play will be shaped as the proposal moves forward, Salmon said. 

“We’re pulling together a very thoughtful and well-articulated proposal, and we’ll look forward to working with the NSF and our partners to bring fidelity to the plans as we move forward,” Salmon said. “We are fully prepared to move with speed and urgency to build the program and continue to work with partners all along the way.”

The Tech-led proposal is the only one the NSF lists as being in the category of logistics and supply chains. Other categories of competition entries include advanced agriculture, aerospace, health and wellness, sustainable energy and water sustainability. Entrants include universities, nonprofits and businesses around the U.S.

The NSF said it received 188 concept outlines for NSF Engines after it announced the competition in May 2022 before narrowing the list down to the 34 semifinalists named on Wednesday. 

“During the next stage, NSF will interview each team to assess their proposed leadership’s ability to rapidly mobilize in the first two years; their competitive advantages; and budget and resources for their planned research and development, translation and workforce development efforts,” NSF said.

“Those selected to move to the final round in July will be interviewed in person to assess risks and committed resources, as well as the team’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”

England, with NSF, said the exact number of finalists and final award winners has yet to be determined.

Even those semifinalists who don’t make the final cut could still be considered for a separate NSF Engine Development Award of up to $1 million over two years, the NSF said.

The NSF Engines program was authorized by the federal CHIPS and Science Act, which was signed into law in August 2022 and aims to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing as well as research and development of cutting-edge technologies.

“Thrilled to see Virginia Tech advance to the next round of selection for a grant made possible by the CHIPS and Science Act,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who was a co-sponsor of the legislation. “This law is going to help us create jobs, strengthen our supply chains, and remain globally competitive. Virginia is ready to play a key role in that.”

Last year, a coalition led by Virginia Tech was in the running for up to $100 million in federal funding as part of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, designed to rebuild regional economies and create jobs in clean energy, advanced manufacturing and other sectors.

The Southwest Virginia group was among 60 of 529 competitors that made it to the final round, but ultimately it was not chosen to receive the money. The coalition of 150 public and private partners had submitted a proposal to make moving goods from place to place greener and more efficient, with a focus on three projects: a test bed for autonomous commercial vehicles, a test zone for delivery drones, and a training and entrepreneurial support network for the sector.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...