Tips For Research Grants

How to write a successful proposal that incorporates a transition to practice plan.


One of the challenges in academic research is to find ways to accelerate innovation and bring new technologies to market faster for broader use and for benefiting society. In fact, only a small fraction of the research performed in academic institutions successfully leaves the labs and reaches the marketplace. Some of the known causes for this include product-market mismatch, limited funding, and poor academic-industry partnerships. In response to this challenge, many of the federal funding agencies are including transition to practice plan (TTP) options in their funding programs, sometimes granting additional funding to support the TTP component of a research proposal and strongly encouraging collaborations with industry.

Best Practices for Including Transition to Practice Plans in Grant Proposals
A TTP is meant to help researchers to take the outcomes from their research and successfully mature and (experimentally) deploy them in industry or equivalent environments that replicate real-world operating conditions, effectively bridging the gap between research and commercialization. Depending on the funding agency, the outcome of a project with a TTP could also be a path towards a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) proposal, or even for a start-up company. The plan should clearly state the problem to be solved, the target market or segment that will adopt the technology, a deployment plan for the prototype and testbed, differentiators and unique benefits of the “product”, team member roles (technical and non-technical), budget justification, collaboration plan with industry and other institutions, and sustainability, among other topics.

Implementing an Accelerated Transition to Practice Plan
An accelerated TPP (aTTP) is one that can be executed in less time with less effort and resources while simultaneously being effective enough to make a successful transition to the marketplace. Some of the key components of an aTTP are 1) rapid prototyping, pilot projects and proof-of-concept systems, 2) testbeds and 3) demonstration projects with specific goals and milestones that are defined to evaluate a functional system in a target environment.

Key Components of an aTTP: Prototypes, Testbeds and Demonstration Projects
The use of prototypes (using rapid prototyping techniques) and testbeds are key to validate, verify, fine tune and/or further develop the technology to a level at which it becomes viable and meets the requirements of the market that is being targeted. The use of rapid prototyping and testbeds that mimic real-world operating conditions allows the researcher to test their “product” while making the necessary adjustments in the design, algorithms, configurations or operational parameters. This approach also brings researchers and graduate students closer to operational settings, embedding themselves in activities related to the use of testbeds in a real-world environment while directly interacting with engineers and professionals in the field.

For a successful aTTP, the focus is put in technology readiness levels (TRL) 4-6 (see next diagram) where most of the prototyping (lab and field) and test happens. TRL 1-3 are related to the science-based discovery that happens at university’s labs, and TRLs 8-9 are the final steps towards commercialization: production and final deployment.

Accelerated Transition to Practice: from fundamental research to commercialization

How Working with Industry as a Partner in Research Differentiates Your Proposals and Accelerates Your Transition to Practice
An industry contact is often seen solely as a sponsor of research who can write a letter of support to be included in the proposal. The traditional letter of support, however, does little to convey how the business will help drive the success of the research and a path to commercialization. By bringing in the right industry contacts as partners, researchers can gain access to expertise, insight, technology, and skills that heavily contribute to the credibility of the research plan, and this can be conveyed through an accelerated Transition to Practice Plan.

NI collaborates with hundreds of researchers through such partnerships, working together from writing grant proposals all the way to transitioning into practice. The NI platform specifically helps to accelerate the design-to-deployment cycle by complementing the TRLs of academic research groups (TRL 1-3) with NI’s (TRL 4-6) and the NI’s Alliance Partners and ecosystem (TRL 7-9). This scale is usually adapted to meet the needs of specific markets and technologies.

The aTTP can be simplified to a three-step approach–Design, Prototype, Deploy–helping to create an effective bridge between the different TRLs for a successful technology development process. NI’s use of testbeds [Ref. 1, 2] has proven to be an effective mechanism to promote the co-development (industry, academia, government and community) of real solutions to some of the most important challenges that society faces in mobility, transportation, health, energy, communications, etc. An example of this is the MicroGrid testbed/demonstration system at our facilities. (see next picture).

MicroGrid Testbed and Demonstration System at NI facilities

This MicroGrid testbed/demonstration system allows researchers and practitioners to rapid-prototype and test new algorithms, methods and technologies on a fully functional micro-grid real-time simulation system that includes loads, sources (wind, solar, etc.), energy storage, power inverters and other basic components of a MicroGrid.

Start-up companies such as Skope Magnetic Resonance Technologies appreciate this accelerated transition to practice approach:
“The NI hardware and software platform allowed us to build a state-of-the-art MR acquisition system with the resources of a start-up company. Customers benefit from the vast NI portfolio of I/O modules if they want to complement their MR Acquisition System with further sensoric or actoric capability.” [3]

Skope Dynamic Field Camera for Fast and Quantitative MRI [3]

Larger companies developing new products and conducting industrial research can also benefit from this approach; for example, the Hyundai Motor Company has used this approach to develop wearable robotics (a.k.a. exoskeleton) for walking assistance [4].

Hyundai Wearable Robotics for Walking Assistance Offer a Full Spectrum of Mobility [4]

As stated by Dr. DongJin Hyun of Hyundai Motor Co.:
“Using LabVIEW and the LabVIEW RIO architecture allowed us to reduce development and test time for our new robot control algorithm to just one week, compared to one month with a text-based approach. We are able to prototype with software and hardware faster and adapt to rapidly changing control requirements.” [4]

Key Takeaway: Because rapid prototyping and testbeds are key success factors of an aTTP, collaborating with the right industry partner can often improve the chances of being awarded funding

The inclusion of a TTP option in your grant proposal can help to make it more competitive while providing access to additional funding to support the technology development initiative. Being able to rapidly develop functional prototypes and using testbeds for comprehensively testing the new technology or “product” before starting any commercialization efforts are key success factors in translational research, technology development and innovation. The industry-ready research platform provided by NI allows multidisciplinary collaboration and facilitates rapid prototyping and deployment of new technologies initiated at universities’ labs for a successful transition to practice.

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