(CLOSED) W.M. Keck Foundation: Science & Engineering/Medical Research - Spring 2023

Sponsor Name: 
W. M. Keck Foundation
Description of the Award: 

Workshop Information: Foundation Relations and the Limited Submissions Office will conduct a workshop via Zoom to explain the funding opportunity and process. The workshop is scheduled for Friday, October 19, 8:15-9:00 AM. Please Register for the session here: https://psu.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJ0qcuitqjovGtWPFiIdJx0_IdMUMGSQahif

The W. M. Keck Research Program seeks to benefit humanity by supporting Medical Research and Science & Engineering projects that are distinctive and novel in their approach, question the prevailing paradigm, or have the potential to break open new territory in their field. Research that focuses on human biology, whether medical or not, are considered by Keck to fall under the medicine category.

Past grants have been awarded to major universities, independent research institutions, and medical schools to support pioneering biological and physical science research and engineering, including the development of promising new technologies, instrumentation or methodologies. Grants range from $1 million to $5 million and are typically $2 million or less. Please see our grant abstracts for examples of funded projects.

The program is extremely competitive with about 200 applicants to the Foundation with only five awards in each category. If you are considering submitting we suggest asking these questions which will be used to judge concept paper:

  • How bold or groundbreaking is the idea and the fundamental science proposed?
  • Why you, why, this idea, and why now?
  • Could this question lead to a life’s work or career-defining work that would shift scientific thinking in a field or the world?

Successful investigators should be published in top journals and those publications should indicate that the investigator is a leader in what is transpiring in the field.

Keck questions that the concept paper should address:

  • What is the big deal?
  • If the field is crowded, what makes your approach different?
  • Has the breakthrough already occurred?
    • Innovations should not have already been published or funded
  • Why Keck?
    • Speak specifically to reviews where the project has been rejected by federal agencies (NIH/NSF/DOE) as too early, too risky, or too interdisciplinary. This is critical.

Competitive projects typically exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Focus on important and emerging areas of basic science research with the potential to develop breakthrough technologies, instrumentation or methodologies that would break down existing barriers to inquiry. We strongly recommend reading grant abstracts.
    • Keck will want to know: How is this proposed work transformational? What’s the big deal? Where is the breakthrough? Where is the risk?
  • Are innovative, distinctive and interdisciplinary and have potential for transformative impact such as the founding of a new field of research, enabling of new observations, or altering perception of a previously intractable problem.
    • What is the magnitude of the improvement? What difference will this make for science in your discipline and others?
  • Demonstrate a high-level of risk due to unconventional approaches, or by challenge the prevailing paradigm.
    • Shows the potential for transformative impact
  • Demonstrate that W. M. Keck Foundation support is essential to the project’s success. Projects that are too early-stage, high-risk, or interdisciplinary to fit within traditional agency funding mechanisms are sought. In fact, Keck looks for written evidence that other avenues of funding have been declined. More than speculating on the prospects of public funding, reviews or discussions with agency program staff should be pursued and a written rejection obtained (this may be in email form). A project that has received excellent reviews from NSF/NIH, but dismissed as too risky, ambitious, etc. would be considered responsive.
    • If invited to the Phase I proposal phase, Keck will ask for reviews or documentation of discussions with Program Directors

Keep in mind the focus is on basic science with the potential broad impact, not clinical or translational research, treatment trials, or research for the sole purpose of drug development. For example, Medical Research proposals should describe innovative research that has the potential to impact fundamental mechanisms of human health and disease. Proposals that focus exclusively on a single disease are not likely to be funded, as the Foundation is more interested in endeavors that address more basic mechanisms/questions that will impact numerous diseases or disorders.

As noted, please research past winners and abstracts at the Foundation website to get a sense of the high-risk ideas funded as Keck advises us to offer this advice. Concept papers should be written as a narrative, not as you would write an NSF or NIH proposal and should both explain the science but leave the reader inspired by the potential of the work to change a field or science. The abstracts provided in the grants lists will give you a sense of the language to use.

Application Process:

The Research Program employs a two-phase application process with optional pre-application counseling. All communication with the Foundation, including submitting applications, proposals and reports must be via the institution’s designated liaison which is Dr. Sophie Penney Leach, Director of Foundation Relations.

The submission process is multi-staged, starting with a consulting period where the Foundation will review 1-page concepts from an institution. From the pool of concepts submitted to this downselect, the internal review committee will select up to eight papers (four each in Science & Engineering/Medical Research) that are consistent with Keck’s funding priorities. Selected teams will have the opportunity to refine these papers between December 2022 and early January 2023 based on internal reviews in preparation for sharing by Keck program staff. This is essential as we must share these concepts with Keck when we request a call during which the selection committee, will on behalf of PIs, discuss the concepts with Keck staff (PIs are not permitted to participate in this discussion).

Keck feedback on each concept’s aims, methodologies, impacts, and rationale for support will be obtained by February 15, 2023. As a result, up to two projects (one each in Science & Engineering/Medical Research) may be selected to submit a 3-page Phase I proposal by May 1, 2023. Successful Phase I proposals are invited to submit a 12-page Phase II proposal by August 15, 2023.

To apply to the internal downselect, use the concept paper template attached and upload application using the button on the right-hand menu bar and upload one PDF file (File name: Last name_KECK-Spring2023.pdf) containing the following items in order:

Internal Application Requirements:

  1. Concept Paper (written for a well-educated lay audience) - see Template file linked at the right (1-page, Times New Roman, 12-point font, one-inch margins):
    • PI Names and Keck Funding Category (Science & Engineering or Medical)
    • Overview: An overview of the proposed project emphasizing any unique aspects and pilot studies. Say what the breakthrough and leap forward may be
    • Methodologies and Key Personnel: A description of the methodologies. Note which aspects are risky and how you can address that risk. This section should be the primary focus and largest section of the concept paper as Keck is more interested in the “what and how” rather than the “why”; Highlight key project personnel and demonstrate expertise/capacity to carry out proposed work
    • Justification for Keck Support: A justification of the need for private funding (exhibit proof of "excellent" reviews that are "too early" or "too risky" or "too interdisciplinary" from federal funding agencies (NIH/NSF)
    • Budget: A roughly estimated budget broken down by major areas, e.g., personnel, equipment, consumable supplies, etc. No F&A / indirect costs. (It is highly recommended budget should be $1 million from Keck over 3 years.)
  2. Internal Memo: (1-page):
    • Explains to PSU reviewers with expertise in your discipline the more technical “so what” and why you can succeed.
    • Explain to PSU reviewers the unique contributions of each of your team members, how it leverages resources/strengths at PSU, and any other information that would be relevant to the internal review panel.
    • Include general statement regarding sources of cost share
  3. Excerpts of federal agency reviews or correspondence with federal program managers indicating that the project is too risky, too early, or too interdisciplinary for the agencies' programs.
Sponsor Final Deadline: 
May 01, 2023
OSVPR Application or NOI Instructions: 

To apply to the internal downselect, use the concept paper template attached and upload application using the button on the right-hand menu bar and upload one PDF file (File name: Last name_KECK-Spring2023.pdf) containing the following items in order:

Internal Application Requirements:

  1. Concept Paper (written for a well-educated lay audience) - see Template file linked at the right (1-page, Times New Roman, 12-point font, one-inch margins):
    • PI Names and Keck Funding Category (Science & Engineering or Medical)
    • Overview: An overview of the proposed project emphasizing any unique aspects and pilot studies. Say what the breakthrough and leap forward may be
    • Methodologies and Key Personnel: A description of the methodologies. Note which aspects are risky and how you can address that risk. This section should be the primary focus and largest section of the concept paper as Keck is more interested in the “what and how” rather than the “why”; Highlight key project personnel and demonstrate expertise/capacity to carry out proposed work
    • Justification for Keck Support: A justification of the need for private funding (exhibit proof of "excellent" reviews that are "too early" or "too risky" or "too interdisciplinary" from federal funding agencies (NIH/NSF)
    • Budget: A roughly estimated budget broken down by major areas, e.g., personnel, equipment, consumable supplies, etc. No F&A / indirect costs. (It is highly recommended budget should be $1 million from Keck over 3 years.)
  2. Internal Memo: (1-page):
    • Explains to PSU reviewers with expertise in your discipline the more technical “so what” and why you can succeed.
    • Explain to PSU reviewers the unique contributions of each of your team members, how it leverages resources/strengths at PSU, and any other information that would be relevant to the internal review panel.
    • Include general statement regarding sources of cost share
  3. Excerpts of federal agency reviews or correspondence with federal program managers indicating that the project is too risky, too early, or too interdisciplinary for the agencies' programs.
To be considered as a Penn State institutional nominee, please submit a notice of intent by the date provided directly below.
This limited submission is in downselect: 
Penn State may only submit a specific number of proposals to this funding opportunity. The number of NOIs received require that an internal competition take place, thus, a downselect process has commenced. No Penn State researchers may apply to this opportunity outside of this downselect process. To apply for this limited submission, please use this link:
OSVPR Downselect Deadline: 
Tuesday, November 29, 2022 - 4:00pm
For help or questions: 

Office of Foundation Relations is the designated institutional contact responsible for communicating with the Foundation and is collaborating with Limited Submissions on the internal downselect process. For questions concerning the application process, other foundation-related questions, or the competitiveness of particular concepts University Park applicants should please contact Sophie Penney Leach, Ph.D., Director, Foundation Relations (swp2@psu.edu). Penn State College of Medicine applicants should please contact Jessica Kiely, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, (jkiely1@pennstatehealth.psu.edu) for additional support.