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Judith Van Houten

Teching Charge

Innovation motivation drives this office

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Judith Van Houten is the Vermont state director of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the University of Vermont. She directs two significant grant programs that help build science and engineering infrastructure in Vermont.

Years ago, before Judith Van Houten was ever employed by the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the University of Vermont, her husband, Josh, was involved with the program in an administrative capacity. She recalls brainstorming with him to find ways to help private-sector small businesses.

“We interviewed people who had begun startup companies,” says Van Houten, “asking how we could be more useful to them. Because we were academics, we’d say, ‘How about students? Post docs? Interns?’ And then I said to them, ‘How about some funding?’ and they said, ‘Yes!’”

Josh is now a chemist at St. Michael’s College, and Van Houten — a geneticist in UVM’s biology department — directs the Vermont EPSCoR program, which has been supporting Vermont scientists and engineers through funding, outreach, and technology development for more than 20 years. 

It’s a bit like wrestling an octopus for the uninitiated to get a solid grasp of what the programs are and how they work together, but Van Houten helps to clarify things. 

States like Vermont that are small and rural, she says, generally receive a small fraction of various federal agencies’ science competitive research budgets, just by virtue of their small population. The first federal agency to devise a special program for states like Vermont was the National Science Foundation (NSF). She’s quick to point out that these grants “are not entitlements or earmarks, but competitive research dollars.”

The connection to business is very interesting, says Van Houten. “The NSF has always wanted us to interact with the private sector, so Josh and I wanted to make them competitive for small business innovative research (SBIR) grants, and all agencies with a science budget have to set aside 02.5 percent of their budgets for SBIR or STTR (small business technology transfer). 

These are wonderful grants, she continues, but hard to get, “and in order to make Vermonters competitive for them, my husband and I figured they need what’s called SBIR Phase 0 (instead of Phase 1 or Phase 2, which they weren’t getting), so we said, ‘Let’s help them.’”

SBIR Phase 0 was so successful in Vermont that the NSF required it for a while in all states. The grants were to build science and engineering infrastructure in the state so we can better compete in the federal arena — to provide seed money for small businesses planning to apply for the larger Phase 1 and Phase 2 grants. 

The program worked so well, she says, it was taken up by other federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

In Vermont, Van Houten is the principal investigator on two grant programs: One is the NSF EPSCoR, and the other is INBRE (Institutional Network for Biomedical Research Excellence) from the NIH. “In addition to that,” she continues, “I am not overseeing, but trying to enhance and facilitate other EPSCoR programs in the state.”

For example, she mentions a NASA EPSCoR run by Bill Lakin — “I’m on his board, and there’s a DOD set of grant proposals we can forward each year to be competitive, and a DOE we can forward each year. The reason I’m involved is I have a bird’s-eye view of all these programs in the state, and we run the competitions for DOE and DOD.”

These programs have a huge multiplier effect, says Van Houten. “Someone like Steve Arms, the president of Microstrain, has received $60,000 over the years and has turned that into something like $2.5 million, conservatively, in SBIR Phase 1 and 2 — and maybe as much as $5 million — that he can trace directly.”

Group photoStaffing the Vermont Genetics Network are Nate Besio (seated), business manager; Julie Paris (standing, left), administrative assistant; and Teri Hart, program manager.

In the most recent round of EPSCoR funding, two additional programs have been instituted. One is called “Use of Facilities” funds, wherein the program pays for the use of the university’s facilities to gather more data for Phase 1 or 2 proposals.

The other new program is the Innovation Fund (IF) awards. “These were born out of the reviews of SBIR Phase 0s,” says Van Houten, “and people would say, ‘Wow! This is a great idea, and if this works, it will change a whole field, but it’s too risky, so we can’t fund it.’ That’s one of the other problems, because funding is too tight, and everyone has to take a conservative approach.”

This program speaks directly to the concern addressed in the American Competitiveness Initiative regarding the loss of innovation in the United States and the prospect of losing leadership, especially in a global economy, she says. “So we’ve tried to invent a new program — the IF program — in Vermont, and these can be absolutely wild ideas.”

These proposals are reviewed by entrepreneurs instead of academics. “We’re hoping to get complete innovation out of these.” The IF program has garnered attention from the National Science Board, which is now trying to figure out how to make these awards at the national level.

“Now at the NIH side of me,” Van Houten continues, “is a much bigger grant, because the NIH is a much bigger federal agency, and they’re about trying to interconnect with the private sector through Vermont INBRE.”

INBRE funds the Vermont Genetics Network (VGN). It’s a $16.5 million grant, and 60 percent of it goes, not to UVM, she says, but outside UVM to five baccalaureate partner schools, and to outreach. 

The baccalaureate partner schools are Castleton State, Johnson State, Middlebury College, Norwich University, and St. Michael’s College. The goal is work force development. “We have that as well in Vermont EPSCoR,” she says, “but in both programs, the idea is we want to enhance science education, especially at the undergraduate level. We also do it at the high school level. We want to encourage Vermont students to go into technical careers.”

A portion of the funding is for outreach, to take curriculum modules around the state — “the very best and highest technology out to schools that might not have access, taking teams to places like Green Mountain College or Lyndon State or Marlboro,” she says. 

That’s the hard-core science and engineering side, she says. On the NSF side — the Vermont EPSCoR side — is the broader impact part, which involves taking the benefits of the science and engineering and translating it to society. This has taken the shape of what’s called the Streams Project.

“We’ve taken all the groups we work with — high school teachers, students, governor’s institute students, undergraduates here at UVM and across the state, and faculty from baccalaureate schools — and put them together in the Streams Project,” Van Houten says. “They’re going to test the water in 17 to 20 streams in the state once a week for three years.”

It’s an important part of work force development, Van Houten continues, because there are students not just out in the field, but also learning all aspects, such as chemical and biological analyses and computer science. “Hopefully, this will encourage them to go on to higher careers in science.”

Part of the outreach is the production of a television series about science and engineering called Emerging Science airing on Vermont Public Television. “We were thinking about what to do to make the public more aware of the wonderful science and engineering in Vermont, and it seems the best way to reach people is through Vermont Public Television.”

The series premiered April 30 and ran for four weeks. The plan is to produce four episodes for each of the three years of funding and eight podcasts a year. “We want people to understand the high quality of science and engineering right here in Vermont. Those programs have good production values, like Nova, so people will understand in fairly straightforward terms what’s going on here.” The Streams Project will be covered in next year’s programs.

It’s a lot to chew, and Van Houten hasn’t even mentioned her work in her own research lab. She’s reluctant to talk about herself. “I do have a life, and a home, and a garden, and a grandson,” she says with a hearty laugh. “But it’s the staff to whom you can delegate that makes everything possible. I can’t tell you how incredibly efficient and intelligent these folks are.”

There are 83 full-timers and 157 part-timers working for various programs. She names Lillian Gamache, the project coordinator and communications manager, with whom she meets daily. Gamache has been instrumental in working with VPT, creates the newsletters, and communicates with Vermont’s federal delegation. 

Group photoLillian Gamache, project coordinator; James Iatridis, associate project director; Ben Ware, information technologist; Nora Joyal (front), administrative assistant; Troy Krahl, business manager; Kelvin Chu, associate project director; and Paul Hale, associate vice president, research and economic development/executive director, technology council.

“Kelvin Chu, associate director, has been invaluable helping with a cyberinfrastructure proposal that creates a synergy between the two grants,” says Van Houten. Staffers Nora Joyal, administrative assistant, and Troy Krahl, the business manager, were key in organizing a June 6 conference hosting national directors — “big people,” she says. “We need to make sure they see the best of our science.”

Van Houten also meets daily with VGN staff, which includes Julie Paris, the administrative assistant, Teri Hart, the program manager, and Nate Besio, the business manager. She travels a lot, although happily, she says, this year most of the trips are short.

The major challenges are the renewals of funding. “With the NSF side, we don’t always get renewed on our first try, and those are very stressful times, but we’ve always gotten our funding; never shut down our office or been without, and never — even between grants — stopped funding the SBIR Phase 0.

“The other challenges — just part of the job, but exciting ones — to take groups of people who haven’t worked together before and build them into a working unit. Right now, we’re taking people who are watershed experts or lake experts and putting them together with engineers and computer scientists or technicians who are not scientists and getting them to work on a modeling process about the lake. You have to have faith it will work out.”

... and maybe a bit of cash and ingenuity. •

Acronym Glossary

Here’s a glossary of acronyms relating to the story. This month, the office is releasing a request for proposals for SBIR Phase 0 and the Innovation Fund awards. The public is invited to submit applications to compete for funding, says Lillian Gamache, project coordinator. 

BRIN: Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network. Source of a $6 million grant in 2001 for the UVM microarray facility, which allows researchers to look at as many as 15,000 genes simultaneously and zero in on specific genes, such as those involved in a disease process. An outreach core of the VGN visits colleges to share microarray experiments.

DOD: U.S. Department of Defense

DOE: U.S. Department of Energy

EPSCoR: Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. NSF funding was renewed in August 2007 for $6.7 million.

IDeA: Institutional Development Award. The national program under which INBRE falls.

IF: Innovation Fund. Backs the exploration of ideas that might be deemed too wild or risky for Phase 0 funding. These are reviewed by entrepreneurs rather than academics.

INBRE: Institutional Network for Biomedical Research Excellence. An NIH initiative to build biomedical research infrastructure. It funds the VGN.

NIH: National Institutes of Health

NSF: National Science Foundation

SBIR: Small business innovation research

STTR: Small business technology transfer. Similar to SBIR, but for technology transfers instead of innovation.

VGN: Vermont Genetics Network. Part of the NIH initiative called INBRE. Funded several years ago for $16.5 million, the largest single investigator grant ever received by UVM.   •

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