The National Science Foundation has awarded Lehigh University $6 million to increase the translation of scientific discoveries by faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers into prototypes, products and programs that will benefit society.

ART Leadership Team

Credit: Lehigh University

The National Science Foundation has awarded Lehigh University $6 million to increase the translation of scientific discoveries by faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers into prototypes, products and programs that will benefit society.

The NSF’s Directorate for Technology Innovation and Partnerships (founded in 2022) provided the four-year award to an interdisciplinary, university-wide team led by John Coulter, senior associate dean for research in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, as part of the new federal Accelerating Research Translation (ART) program

The award will support Lehigh’s work to speed up and support its research activities in engineering, science, health, humanities, business, education and myriad other areas that have the potential to lead to products and services for the general good. Lehigh also will train graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in translational research.  

“While it’s essential to make discoveries and do fundamental research, as a university we must also be effective in translating new knowledge to solve important problems in the world. This is how we enhance the impact of the research done by our faculty, staff and students,” said Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban. “We are excited that NSF has recognized and decided to support Lehigh’s efforts to take ideas and discoveries from the lab and develop them into practical solutions to societal and economic challenges.”

A portion of the funding will support seed translational research projects that are on the “cusp” of being applied to practical outcomes, and the rest will support education and training as well as other research translation enhancement activities.   

“This is a high-priority initiative,” Coulter said. “Lehigh will create and operate a comprehensive, inclusive and accessible research translation ecosystem that will guide researchers and project teams along the paths of venture creation, research translation into existing industry, and societal impact.”  

The investments are not just important to Lehigh, but to funding agencies as well, Coulter said. “This is a national and international trend to have research be more use-inspired, more connected to the end users … and more rapidly translated for positive societal impact.  That’s what this is meant to do.”

Carnegie Mellon University will serve as a peer mentor institution, helping Lehigh leverage its existing strengths to grow its translational research work and transform its culture. 

The first-ever awards address a long-standing gap between academic research and practical solutions for society’s complex problems. 

“On the faculty side, we all say we want impact,” said Dominic Packer, associate vice provost for research at Lehigh and a member of the ART leadership team. “Some of the greatest impact is when you discover something new and it actually creates something that changes how doctors deliver medicine, or is a new invention that people put to use out in the field, or is an intervention for kids in schools.” 

But translating that research into usable products or services can be challenging, he said. 

“Every university has this problem. It’s sometimes called the Valley of Death between work that happens on a campus and then actually gets into the world.” he said. “It’s in part because, as researchers, we don’t have those skill sets. We’re not business people. We’ve never thought entrepreneurially for the most part. …This is a program to really help elevate that.”

The NSF award advances the goals outlined in Lehigh’s strategic plan, Inspiring the Future Makers. The 10-year plan outlines a bold vision for the university centered around breaking boundaries to address societal challenges, innovate in academics and research, and cultivate collaborations and partnerships to amplify Lehigh’s global, national and regional impact. The plan aims to allow Lehigh to find pragmatic solutions to the world’s problems through research and scholarship.

The work will build on Lehigh’s strengths and past successes, such as the innovative Pasteur Partners PhD (P3) Fellowship, a launchpad for advanced students who are focused on creating immediate impact in their fields through use-driven research. 

In all, 18 academic institutions across the nation were awarded the ART funding, which totaled more than $100 million. 

“NSF endeavors to empower academic institutions to build the pathways and structures needed to speed and scale their research into products and services that benefit the nation,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “The Accelerating Research Translation program in NSF’s new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Directorate identifies, and champions institutions positioned to expand their research translation capacity by investing in activities essential to move results to practice.” 

In its proposal, Lehigh indicated that the funding could prove transformational, especially for Ph.D. education as the university implements its strategic plan and helps students with practical questions: How do you make a business plan? How do you talk to potential investors? How do you ideate and take things from one’s intellectual world into the real world? 

“Lehigh, despite the great research we do, does not have a great track record of startup companies, of patents, of that kind of translational work,” Packer said. “So we really think this is a chance for us to elevate that and start us, in some ways, on a new pathway. … We’re aiming to double research activity. We aim to more than double—maybe triple or quadruple— translational work, because we have so much room to grow.”

Kate Bullard, director of research development at Lehigh, said each institution that received funding will have ambassadors who will regularly gather in Washington, D.C., to share experiences and lessons learned.

“It’s not just the work that’s going to happen here,” Bullard said. “But we’re going to be part of a national conversation around research translation, and I think that’s massively important.”

The Lehigh team intends to build an inclusive capacity and infrastructure for research translation, provide accessible education and training, and drive a culture change toward research translation throughout the university community. 

To help accomplish these goals, Lehigh will develop one-credit course modules with incentives for participation, a fellows program and a summer research translation bootcamp. Lehigh also plans to add personnel, expand its existing undergraduate and graduate programming in research translation, and mentor students through career options and offerings.

Research translation will be emphasized at all orientation sessions for new faculty, graduate students and postdocs and research scientists. 

Additionally, Lehigh aims to grow its involvement with Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which provides funding, business and technical expertise and other resources to early-stage and established companies to help with growth. It also hopes to utilize a Lehigh Research Translation External Advisory Council, and form external partner networks, such as a New Ventures Executives Network to lead new startups and an Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program.

“We’re at a moment of big, big challenges [in society], and the federal agencies can’t fund enough to solve them,” Bullard said. “The federal government can’t do everything. So how do we form partnerships that solve these big problems? It’s training graduate students and postdocs to tackle these problems.”

The ART Leadership Team at Lehigh

In addition to Coulter as principal investigator (PI) and Packer as co-PI, other co-PIs are:

—Lee Kern, professor of special education and director of the Center for Promoting Research to Practice at Lehigh

—Henry Odi, deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity

—Himanshu Jain, the T.L. Diamond Distinguished Chair in engineering and applied science, professor of materials science and engineering, and director of the Institute for Functional Materials and Devices (I-FMD) at Lehigh. 

Three faculty members will lead primary research-translation ecosystem components:

—Mike Lehman, director of Lehigh’s technical entrepreneurship program, professor of practice.

—Neal Simon, professor of biological sciences

—Hannah Dailey ’02 ’06G ’09 Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics

Additional members of the Lehigh senior personnel team are:

— Anand Jagota, vice provost for research and founding chair of the bioengineering program
—Lesley Chow, associate professor, bioengineering, materials science and engineering
—Andreea Kiss, the Ferdinand Thun ‘56 Chair in Family Business
—Rick Smith, director of technology transfer

—Kevin Major, research engagement officer, I-FMD
—Lisa Getzler, vice provost for entrepreneurship
—Won Choi, epidemiologist; professor, Department of Community and Population Health in the College of Health; associate dean, research and graduate studies.
—Minyi Dennis, associate professor of special education