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Renowned UT Inventor Funds Grant Program to Boost Faculty Innovation

Bob Metcalfe, UT Austin professor of innovation and director of the Innovation Center in the Cockrell School of Engineering, doesn’t want to see great inventions sit idly on a shelf gathering dust — he wants them to impact people’s lives.

That’s the motivation behind his and wife Robyn Metcalfe’s $100,000 gift to support Innovation Grants. Faculty entrepreneurs at The University of Texas at Austin who need to bridge the gap between research and commercialization can now apply for available funding from the Innovation Center. The gift comes from the Metcalfe Family Foundation, which is focused on supporting higher education efforts.   

“I helped to create this grant program at the Innovation Center because I know how important early funding is to keep research on the path to commercialization,” Metcalfe said. “My wife and I consider our gift an investment in UT Austin’s faculty and student commercialization efforts.”

In addition to the Metcalfes’ support, the Innovation Center also received a $100,000 gift from Fidelity Investments, a $10,000 gift from Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, a national law firm out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a $5,000 gift from Nokia Bell Labs. The $215,000 in gifts will be used for innovation grants to help professor-led teams assess and advance the commercial potential of their research, Metcalfe said. 

The grants program is part of a startup ecosystem at UT Austin that includes the Office of Technology Commercialization, Austin Technology Incubator, Texas Venture Labs, Dell Medical School’s Texas Health Catalyst program  and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. 

While helping faculty-led teams, the UT Austin grants program also gives donors a front-row seat to emerging technologies. The Innovation Center will receive input from the donors before selecting grant recipients, but Metcalfe and his staff will make final decisions on which faculty members ultimately receive the awards. 

“The Innovation Grant is a wonderful opportunity for us to support the entrepreneurial spirit of research that feeds commercialization at The University of Texas at Austin,” said Lisa Mueller, chair of Life Sciences Industry Group at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP.

The Innovation Center awards the Innovation Grants on a continual basis and accepts applications from UT Austin faculty throughout the year. Each grant, which will not exceed $50,000, will be named in honor of the respective donor. The gap funding can be used for commercialization-related efforts, such as developing and testing prototypes, visiting potential customers and hosting demonstrations. 

Metcalfe said that in many respects the amount of the grant is less important than the stamp of approval it represents from the Innovation Center.

“We vet these innovations, and then surround the grant recipient with recruiting help, mentoring and access to our pool of entrepreneurial advisors,” he said. “Right now, we have more good inventions than we have money to support. With additional funding, we can help more of these cross the gap to commercialization so that they can benefit people.”

The inaugural Innovation Grants were awarded to two Cockrell School faculty members in February of this year. One of these faculty-led startups, Apptronik, already has more than $1 million in orders.

The company was spun out of successful research developments in associate professor Luis Sentis’ robotics lab. Apptronik is now focused on developing actuators, the motors responsible for moving and controlling robots.

“Last spring, professor Sentis came to us and demonstrated the revolutionary actuator, and Bob helped him identify the path to the market,” said Louise Epstein, managing director of the Innovation Center. “Gifts like the ones from the Metcalfes, Fidelity Investments, Michael Best and Nokia Bell Labs are critical to bridging the gap to commercialization because what starts here can truly change the world.”