There’s a fundamental dilemma in research: Unconventional approaches to stubborn problems propel research forward, illuminating solutions that might otherwise be neglected. But in a fiercely competitive funding landscape, mature projects with years of supporting data often have the upper hand.

One solution is to create alternative pathways to nurture fledgling ideas — particularly ones that combine perspectives from different corners of academia and don’t always fit neatly into the traditional territories of funding agencies. 

At Virginia Tech, the investment institutes — the Fralin Life Science Institute, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment — fuel research by investing in high-risk, high-reward projects.

Operating through the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, the investment institutes help faculty from across campus form teams to showcase their work on national and international stages and compete for external funding. All have seed-grant funding programs.

“The investment institutes have created a collaborative culture and environment that promotes interdisciplinary research across our colleges and departments,” said Theresa Mayer, vice president for research and innovation. “By enabling the convergence of disciplinary knowledge and expertise, the institutes have allowed Virginia Tech faculty to successfully compete for external programs that provide support to address some of the most complex problems facing society.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration is a recurring theme in the institutes’ programs.  Merging complementary areas of expertise can accelerate progress, and the investment institutes deliberately structure their seed-grant programs to incentivize collaboration.

Virginia Tech was an early adopter of the model of using strategic investments to catalyze research, and has had formal interdisciplinary seed-investment programs in place since the early 2000’s. Since that time, the university’s research portfolio has grown substantially, more than doubling in terms of total research expenditures. Last year, Virginia Tech had its highest sponsored research expenditures ever.

Each investment institute concentrates on specific focus areas that collectively cover vast research territory. Together, the four institutes provide support in some form for 770 Virginia Tech faculty — nearly half the university’s total complement.

That support can take the form of lab space, shared instruments, and administrative support for submitting large proposals. But some of the institutes’ most powerful tools are direct seed investments in new projects with the potential to blossom into thriving research programs.

Typically between $10,000 and $40,000 per project per year, these seed investments often support travel to develop a collaboration in person, or fund the purchase of a critical piece of equipment, or assign a graduate student to a brand-new project.

Those things can make the difference between an idea that never gets off the ground and one that flourishes, but they can be difficult for a researcher to fund from existing federal grants. The investment institutes bridge that gap.  

Seed investments also subsidize research initiatives that advance long-term university priorities: fostering a more diverse and inclusive campus environment, for example, and engaging undergraduates in research.

More on the investment institutes:

Fralin Life Science Institute (Fralin)

The Fralin Life Science Institute provides resources to Virginia Tech’s life sciences community to support innovative research, education, and outreach. It provides financial support to numerous thrust area groups, many of whom then use a portion of that award for seed grants. Occasionally, Fralin will run a seed-grant program of its own, usually in conjunction with one of the other investment institutes.  Fralin also offers proposal development assistance to faculty as part of a cooperative institute-wide support program called VT-FAST.  More information about Fralin's prorgrams is available here

“Our mission is to support faculty and students and enable successful research teams to grow into world-leading programs.”

- Dennis Dean, Fralin director

Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT)

Each year, ICAT's call for proposals solicits ideas for interdisciplinary initiatives that involve creative practices and are critically focused toward development and advancement of research at the nexus of science, engineering, art, and design. The institute receives additional support from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. More information is available on the institute's website.

“ICAT is a community of student and faculty whose work transcends the boundaries between education and research, fosters creativity and innovation, and promotes critical reflection.” 

- Ben Knapp, ICAT director

Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS)

ICTAS offers a range of seed-grant opportunities that support interdisciplinary partnerships between faculty across campus.  Other investment opportunities include programs targeted for diversity and inclusion and undergraduate research; a full list is available on the institute’s website.

“It is critically important that we provide a mechanism for innovative ideas to get traction, to generate the initial data that signals to funding agencies that this is a safe bet. What we have seen is that making strategic investments in promising projects ultimately increases external research funding.”

- Stefan Duma, ICTAS director

Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE)

ISCE supports Virginia Tech’s social and behavioral sciences community by providing strategic financial support and technical assistance. Its signature ISCE Scholars Program invests in innovative, interdisciplinary, and translational research teams addressing critical human and societal concerns impacting the lives of people and places. More information about ISCE’s support programs is available here

“ISCE provides opportunities for faculty to focus on timely issues that require interdisciplinary collaboration and exemplify the value of the social sciences to effectively address the complexity of individual and societal challenges.”

- Karen Roberto, ISCE director