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A Look Into the NSF’s New Directorate

The foundation’s first additional organization in 30 years is designed to spur national innovation.

Authorized by the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act, which became law in August 2022, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) last year created a new organization called the Technology Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate.

From the outset, TIP was designed to behave differently from other NSF organizations, explained Erwin Gianchandani, assistant director, Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, U.S. National Science Foundation, speaking with Charles Clancy, senior vice president and chief technology officer, The MITRE Corporation, and general manager of MITRE Labs, on March 12 at the inaugural AFCEA International TechNet Emergence conference held in Reston, Virginia, March 11-12.

The directorate’s mission is to advance research and development, technology development and related solutions that address U.S. issues and challenges for the benefit of all Americans. This goes beyond a single mission area such as defense, Gianchandani said. And the assistant director clarified that TIP was not created just to be another entity such as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or the intelligence community equivalent, IARPA.

The directorate, under the NSF’s Engines Program, will support multiple regional innovation ecosystems across the United States to spur economic growth and flourish innovation, especially in regions that may not have seen the technology boom experienced in other areas over the past few decades. Across the country, it will award grants that support “transformational advances” in critical technologies such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, advanced wireless and biotechnology.

Part of the new directorate’s charge is to develop “mutually beneficial” R&D partnerships across academia, nonprofit organizations, labor organizations, for-profit entities, government entities and international entities.

TIP will encourage the translation of research into innovations, processes and products that feed into the American economy, Gianchandani said. This means focusing on pressing challenges.

“The end goal of this effort is to really be able to advance key technologies to be able to address some of our pressing societal and geostrategic challenges, and also, to grow the workforce,” Gianchandani explained. “And those aspirations hold true from a national level.”


In its efforts to fund cutting-edge science and discovery, TIP is shifting the paradigm of innovation processes, the assistant director said. It is bringing in end users at the beginning of the innovation development process to help shape research direction. The idea is to have more of a “demand pull” function for its research.

As part of the Regional Engines Program, which is a similar concept to technology hubs and innovators, the directorate is making substantial investments.

“One of the things we are doing uniquely in this program is that we are investing significant federal dollars,” the assistant director shared. “We might be investing per engine $160 million over 10 years. That is an order magnitude greater than the largest research grant than what the NSF has historically funded in research.”

Beyond the funding piece, TIP is looking at the creation of the innovative ecosystems and building partners to come together, pulling in people from universities, state, local and tribal governments in an area. Those meaningful partnerships are key to blossoming investments and adding private, nonfederal capital to the NSF funding.

“When we announced 10 Engines in January in 10 regions across the country, we made an initial down payment of  $150 million, $15 million per project, supporting the first two years of activity,” Gianchandani noted. “And that was matched by twice as much funding commitments from industry and state and local governments. So the overall investment across the first two years actually exceeds half a billion dollars. And most of that is private capital . . . nonfederal capital.”

Erwin Gianchandani
I think [it] is worth noting that there are a number of other nations around the world who are pursuing this. We are not alone in thinking about this sort of innovation approach.
Erwin Gianchandani
Assistant Director, The Technology, Innovation and Partnership Directorate, National Science Foundation


The projects recognize the regional characteristics to support a community. For example, a project in Nevada is looking at lithium, while a project in Louisiana is looking at how to facilitate energy transition in an area that was heavily dependent on oil and gas refining.

“What is the topic space that they are sharing and able to come in around?” he asked. “And does it make sense for that particular region and history of that region?”

Part of that regional comprehension has TIP also considering how an entity can best be led to accelerate technologies. “Another important dimension is in understanding who is going to be leading this effort,” Gianchandani said. “Yes, you need somebody who is driving this as an agenda. But you also need a situation where success isn't bestowed upon just one entity or one organization. One of the things that we stress is that it is less important who it is that will lead. It is much more important who the folks are who are coming together to coalesce behind certain innovation.”

Additionally, with the Department of Defense and the federal government as a whole pursuing emerging technologies at a rate not seen before, international partnerships are more of a priority, Clancy noted, asking if the same holds true for the new directorate. “I think there's a realization that the U.S. will only be successful in the long run if we can build strong international partnerships and really look at emerging technology, not just in the U.S. but with Europe and other allies, in the Pacific and elsewhere,” Clancy stated.

With TIP, the need for a global perspective is key, Gianchandani confirmed. Before the organization was established, NFS officials networked with countries that were already considering the pursuit of this type of innovation acceleration.

“I think [it] is worth noting that there are a number of other nations around the world who are pursuing this. We are not alone in thinking about this sort of innovation approach,” Gianchandani continued. “As a matter of fact, when we were conceptualizing the program two and a half years ago, we went out and we talked to folks in Ireland, in Japan, in Europe, to folks in India and so on, because they each were contemplating or had experience already with these sort . . . activities throughout their countries. And so, the notion of how do we harness that full geography and demography of innovation, I think is something that carries water not just here in the United States, but it's true around the globe and in many of our like-minded partner countries.”