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

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

Workshop Information: Foundation Relations and the Limited Submissions Office conducted a workshop via Zoom to explain the funding opportunity and process. A recording of the webinar is available at: https://psu.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/Keck++FoundationA+Science+%26+Engineering+Medical+Research+Information+Session+%28Edit%29/1_uxts8f0z

The W. M. Keck Research Program seeks to benefit humanity by supporting two different areas: (1) Medical Research and (2) Science & Engineering. Keck seeks distinctive, novel projects that question prevailing paradigms and will produce breakthroughs in a field or science as a whole.

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. (Research that focuses on human biology, whether medical or not, are considered by Keck to fall under the medicine category.) Grants range from $1 million to $5 million and are typically $2 million or less. Recent awards have been in the $1-1.5 million dollar range.

We cannot recommend strongly enough that you review the grant abstracts for examples of funded projects. As you do so, you might ask how your proposed project compares in scope and potential impact on your field or science.

The program is extremely competitive with about 200 applicants to the Foundation with only five awards in each category with approximately 75% of funding being awarded west of the Mississippi. If you are considering submitting we suggest asking yourself 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 their field and capable of pursuing this line of research.

Keck questions that the concept paper should address:

  • The breakthrough -- what about this work is field or science changing?
    • Note: Innovations should not have already been published or funded and should not be likely be be reached before awards are made.
  • If the field is crowded, what makes your approach different?
  • 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.
    • Keck wants to spur scientific breakthroughs and set PIs up to receive further support, so this is critical.

Competitive projects typically exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Focus on critical 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 again recommend reading the 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 or beyond?
  • Demonstrate a high-level of risk due to unconventional approaches, or by challenging prevailing paradigms.
    • 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 or focused on a single disease. For example, Medical Research proposals should describe innovative research that has the potential to impact fundamental mechanisms of human health and disease. The foundation is 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 from the outset 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 and four each in Medical Research) that are consistent with Keck’s funding priorities. Selected Pis or teams will have the opportunity to refine their papers between DATE and early DATE 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 Date. 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 DATE. Successful Phase I proposals are invited to submit a 12-page Phase II proposal by DATE.

Sponsor Final Deadline: 
Aug 15, 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-Fall2023.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 upfront 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). This can be one line, but be as specific as possible.
    • 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. Please connect with an RA in your unit to discuss),
  2. Internal Memo: (1-page -- will only be shared internally):
    • 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: 
Monday, June 5, 2023 - 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 Jess Kiely, Director of Foundation Relations, (jkiely1@pennstatehealth.psu.edu) for additional support.

Slots available, contact limitedsubs@psu.edu to be considered.