Sponsored Content by Americas Seed Fund at NSF

The importance of risky ideas and how their success could shape our future

Innovation is born from identifying critical needs and then developing ambitious solutions; these new concepts may bring tremendous technical risks. These risks may be well beyond what individuals or even early-stage investors can support, but America’s Seed Fund, powered by the National Science Foundation, offers funding to make these nascent transformations a reality. 

In 1977, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created America’s Seed Fund to give startups and small businesses a chance at transforming their ideas into marketable products and services. This government agency has an annual budget of $8.1 billion, of which $200 million goes directly to startups as non-dilutive funding

America’s Seed Fund believes in the power of groundbreaking and technically risky ideas for massive impact. As a result, they specialize in funding startups and small businesses with ideas still in the pre-validation phase. Each startup can get up to $1.5 million (over 36+ months) to aid in conducting research and development. Venture capital and other funding sources tend to be technically risk averse, preferring that a product or concept is validated before investing. America’s Seed Fund fills this gap and helps bolster disruption by selecting applications with ideas that demonstrate the possibility for technological, social, or health-related change.

Some of their first big successful investments have grown into well-known industry leaders like Qualcomm and Lasik. More recently, newer companies have formed to offer solutions addressing major issues. 

Ginkgo Bioworks

Employees working in Bioworks 4, a laboratory that focuses on mammalian cells.

Ginkgo Bioworks, first supported by the NSF in 2010, creates organisms bioengineered to sustainably produce specialty chemicals such as fragrance ingredients, food, and even fuel — all through the fermentation of sugar. In 2019, Ginkgo Bioworks formed a partnership with Synologic, a medical bioengineering company, to help accelerate the creation of new “living medicines that can treat a wide range of dynamic diseases,” potentially benefiting people with cancer, rare metabolic diseases, liver disease, and inflammatory and immune disorders.

In 2012, NSF supported Blue River Technologies (since acquired by John Deere), a company that brings machine learning technology, including computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI), to agriculture through smart equipment to manage farming at the individual crop level. The ability to individually manage each plant allows farmers to apply these chemicals minimally and precisely, leading to fewer new species of herbicide-resistant weeds, less harm to crops, and consequently lower costs. 

VocaliD AudioGen

Michele J Martin, one of the VocaliD team, using VocaliD enterprise portal to generate & edit audio.

America’s Seed Fund also prioritizes technologies that can be deployed to address complex social issues. Marinus Analytics, first supported by the NSF in 2016, was initially formed to use AI to identify sex trafficking victims by decoding deliberately obscure online language. VocaliD, an SBIR company from 2015, works to create personalized synthetic voices for people with speech disabilities.

Marinus Analytics Traffic Jam’s FaceSearch enables law enforcement to find missing children with just a photo.

Each of these companies was formed around a technically risky concept offering tremendous value to industry and society. America’s Seed Fund is led by program directors with extensive experience in commercialization of deep technologies; they lead a review process that evaluates applications for both technical and commercial merit. This source of funding is completely industry-agnostic — in fact, some of the industries they fund don’t even exist today! Currently, funding goes toward the top concepts in AI and machine learning, biotechnology, robotics, Internet of Things, blockchain, space ventures, and many others. They are looking for deep technologies — that is, technologies based on patents, trade secrets, and other sources of competitive advantage developed in laboratories and research groups. 

Unlike other sources (private, government, or otherwise), the funding from America’s Seed Fund is non-dilutive. Their goal is to empower applicants with the resources needed to validate technical concepts and business models.

If you have an idea, submit a project pitch now to see if it’s a good fit! 

Most of the companies funded by America’s Seed Fund are brand new and formed just to apply. So, if you haven’t formed a company yet, don’t worry. Start by submitting your project pitch, and your idea might become a reality!