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Get Involved with NSF Innovation Programs: Q&A with an NSF Program Director

Get Involved with NSF Innovation Programs: Q&A with an NSF Program Director -

Are you interested in learning more about innovation programs at the National Science Foundation? Anna Brady-Estevez, a program director for the NSF Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program, talks about what inspired her to become an engineer, how NSF can help and how SWE members can get funding for work that makes a difference. 

Anna received her Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Johns Hopkins University, and a doctorate in chemical and environmental engineering from Yale University. She also was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, worked for a startup, served as a Kauffman Fellow at an early-stage venture firm, and worked in strategy and investments at Boston Consulting Group and two Fortune 200 companies.

anna brady-estevez
Anna Brady-Estevez

What inspired you to become an engineer?

I was inspired by seeing problems and how engineering and technology could meaningfully solve them. This was a range of challenges, whether it was finding solutions for threats to human health, advancing energy technology, or changing the paradigms of how businesses compete and grow our economy. It was inspiring to see how engineers and innovators could always seem to come up with a different solution and a way to change how things are done! There are so many ways engineering can serve people. 

When I started my PhD there were millions of children who still died every year from waterborne illnesses; this devastating state was the impetus for my research, which led me to developing nanotechnology-based low-cost water filters to remove pathogens from water while at Yale. So many engineers and scientists have done so much to improve so many areas: from sanitation and health to new energy and environmental sustainability, to improved data analytics that drive better decisions, to going to space — yes, I’m excited about space exploration and the potential for future long term human settlements in space! Many things are hard to envision before they’ve become accomplishable, and engineers are critical in bringing the “once impossible” to “day-to-day” normal. Also, seeing the opportunities engineering can offer for an exciting career — and life — made it look like a promising career path. 

How does NSF help people move their ideas into impactful solutions?

As a program director at NSF, I get to support highly creative people doing exciting work in deep technology startups. NSF provides early-stage funding, starting at $256,000 for a Phase I grant, and up to almost $2 million per company. The companies are often very early stage, sometimes with two or three people, often starting the company right before applying. The companies use the funding to build their proof of concept, and many of the companies have gone on to provide impactful solutions. NSF also has an ecosystem of programs to help people and advance technologies at different stages in translation/innovation from basic research to the market.

You have the ability as engineers to create completely new realities. NSF supports engineers who want to make a difference and have new solutions and approaches and is here with you when you are ready to challenge what is possible. It is very normal that the biggest new ideas and technologies can face headwinds. NSF is ready to take those risks with you. 

While there are projects that we fund that sometimes are clearer in terms of their potential for impact and success, NSF also very frequently funds high risk projects that will have the biggest impacts. NSF celebrates you taking a chance to advance what is possible. 

Engineers can also know that when they fail and learn something new, they are often exploring, testing boundaries and ultimately getting better prepared for their next attempt. NSF has extraordinary respect for engineers and innovators and failure, learning, iteration and new approaches often leads to later success. 

Why should SWE members think about applying to NSF’s innovation programs like SBIR/STTR or I-Corps?

SWE members have skills to think about what the biggest problems and opportunities are, identify and build a novel technical solution that does not currently exist. Many SWE members are already working on innovative technologies they developed; others can find such projects and help drive them to impact. NSF’s programs are here to provide funding and other support to help you take your innovation dream and make it a reality!

What are some of the most exciting technologies that you’ve seen recently? 

We see a wide range of exciting technologies ranging from energy storage to cryptography/blockchain, AI, environmental technologies and COVID solutions. It’s worth noting that we fund all areas of technology, so if you have a deep technology innovation there is a place for you!

How should SWE members get involved?

Serve as an NSF reviewer! It is a great way to see inside the merit review process and learn how to communicate what is competitive and compelling about your technology and its potential impact.

If you’re ready to start a company or get feedback from NSF, entrepreneurs can submit a written Project Pitch at any time to learn if their idea would be a good fit for the program. Learn more at https://seedfund.nsf.gov/apply/get-started/.

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