Big Questions Incubator will support early-stage, high-impact research initiatives

When a faculty member is developing a creative research idea that may be difficult to fund through conventional sources, the UChicago Big Questions Incubator wants to be there to help.

The Big Questions Incubator will target early-stage, innovative ideas that have the potential to grow into major new research programs at the University. The Incubator will provide comprehensive support, including different levels of funding, strategic administrative expertise, a centrally located space for collaboration and meetings and connections to potential collaborators across different fields.

With the help of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Big Questions Incubator will provide funding to pursue an initial set of big questions on information, complexity and emergence and cognition.

Two levels of grants will be available. Seed grants up to $15,000 will be awarded quarterly, allowing faculty to explore high-risk research ideas that might otherwise be too uncertain for them to pursue at an early stage. Vision grants up to $100,000 will be awarded semi-annually to support projects that are beyond the conception stage and have the potential to grow into larger research initiatives. Vision grants will be peer-reviewed, and a faculty advisory council will make funding decisions.

The Big Questions Incubator is an initiative of Arete, a research accelerator at the UChicago Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories. Arete helps faculty launch complex research initiatives and secure external funding. The Incubator and Arete will provide joint strategic expertise in developing the seeded projects into major research programs.

“The Big Questions Incubator is an experimental venture with great potential to provide seed funding for new ideas, create the space and support needed to nurture those ideas, and seek ways to attract other investors for promising ideas,” said Chris Stawski, director for strategic program initiatives at the Templeton Foundation.

The Big Questions Incubator launch will take place on May 14 at the Quad Club and will be open to all faculty. Chalk Talks, a series of five-minute talks by faculty members about the most intriguing or difficult question they would like to work on, will be a regular feature.

“We’re trying to create more opportunities for people to talk about some nascent ideas they’ve been musing about, and to engage with people across campus who have radically different intellectual histories,” said Elena Zinchenko, director of research innovation at the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories, who heads the Big Questions Incubator.

The Incubator will be located on the third floor of the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 58th Street and Ellis Avenue. After renovation this summer, the space will house the Big Questions Incubator and other staff resources to assist faculty in developing new research programs. There will be informal spaces for faculty to meet, as well as a private conference room with high-tech capabilities for data sharing and videoconferencing.   

“We want to make this an attractive destination for faculty at the crossroads of the campus,” said Kenneth Olliff, assistant vice president of program development and executive director of Arete. “There will be lots of informal spaces where they can sit down and interact with colleagues and people they wouldn’t normally see in their daily lives. We also want to make this a one-stop shop: Got a research idea? Need to write a proposal? This will be the place to come because you’ll have staff here who have the expertise in these different areas who can help,” Olliff added.

The Incubator also will offer free artisanal coffee and regular wine receptions to help encourage researchers to come and talk about their ideas. “It’s going to be the kind of vibrant, intellectual environment that people expect from the University of Chicago,” said Zinchenko.

Zinchenko said there has been a lot of enthusiasm from the faculty for this platform to exchange ideas. “We keep asking faculty to imagine what would be a perfect environment for them to go after their most ambitious ideas. With the Big Questions Incubator, we are trying to get closer to that ideal.”

“The Foundation’s goal in supporting this grant is that research and progress in addressing Big Questions might be accelerated through this venture and serve as a model for other universities and funders who are seeking to develop mechanisms to engage in constructive, cross-disciplinary, ‘blue-sky’ thinking and discovery,” Stawski added.