News Release

Two U of M-affiliated projects named as finalists in NSF Regional Innovation Engine Competition

Image of East River Road heading into Dinkytown on the Twin Cities campus, with a view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
Credit: University of Minnesota

Two proposed projects affiliated with the University of Minnesota were chosen as finalists for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines competition. The Midwest Sustainable Plastics Innovation Regional Engine (M-SPIRE), a U of M-led effort to drive the global transition to sustainable plastics, and Great Lakes ReNEW, a Chicago-based effort with significant U of M partnership to create a decarbonized circular blue economy in the Great Lakes region, were among 16 finalists announced by NSF this week. Each of these initiatives have the potential for $160 million in NSF funding over 10 years.

The new Regional Innovation Engines program offers the largest investments in NSF history and was created under the federal CHIPS and Science Act to boost innovation capacity, create sustainable innovation ecosystems and demonstrate inclusive growth across regions and demographics.  
"Minnesota's leadership in sustainable plastics and water have the potential to develop into the regional innovation ecosystems that Congress and NSF envision with this program," said Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. "This competition is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Minnesota and our regional partners to harness the best innovations and transform how we combat climate change."

NSF Engine finalists are now receiving site visits from NSF, and the agency plans to select the inaugural Regional Innovation Engines this winter. 

M-SPIRE: Transforming plastics from a linear to a circular economy
M-SPIRE is led by Marc Hillmyer, U of M McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair and director of the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers headquartered at U of M.

“Sustainable plastics must be the future, and M-SPIRE will drive innovation in this area by promoting an ecosystem to broadly facilitate translation of new technologies that promote a circular plastics economy to the benefit of all,” said Hillmyer. “M-SPIRE has set in motion a sustainable plastics ecosystem with manufacturers, citizens, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs and government all actively involved. By engaging stakeholders across the lifecycle of plastics our Engine will ignite the growth of a circular plastics economy nationwide.” 

M-SPIRE plans to accelerate research and translation activities to reimagine the plastics industry. Over the 10-year grant period, M-SPIRE would become a comprehensive growth engine that deploys technologies, businesses and jobs to improve local economies and elevate communities while solving a grand societal challenge. The project’s diverse coalition of participants are committed to build a plastics future that is economically robust, sustainable and benefits the environment. The project’s “cradle-to-grave” product cycle network plans to address challenges that cannot be solved individually. 

M-SPIRE relies on the significant and relevant expertise and resources at the U of M, in Minnesota and among regional partners concentrated in the Chicago metropolitan area. The coalition is ideally suited to become the engine that leads the nation in transforming the currently linear plastics economy into a circular one. 

M-SPIRE would be operated out of the University of Minnesota through the College of Science and Engineering and the Office of the Vice President for Research and be led by a full-time CEO. Numerous U of M faculty and staff would have key roles in M-SPIRE operations and an extensive partner network would span raw material producers, plastics manufacturers, innovators, consumers, material recovery facilities, educators, and workforce development organizations that are critical to fully address the plastics waste crisis. 

ReNEW: a decarbonized circular blue economy to transform the Great Lakes region
ReNEW is led by Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current, a Chicago water innovation nonprofit. Of being selected a finalist, she said, “ReNEW’s vision of the Great Lakes region as a powerful driver of global water innovation and inclusive economic opportunity is now one step closer to reality.”

ReNEW proposes an ambitious plan to use inclusive, streamlined innovation; workforce development; and stakeholder engagement to drive a decarbonized circular Blue Economy that would leverage the region’s extraordinary water resources to transform the upper Midwest.

Current and partners spanning research institutions, industry, investors and nonprofit organizations created Great Lakes ReNEW, a six-state, cross-sector collaboration focused on recovering energy, nutrients and other critical materials from water and wastewater that includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

ReNEW’s University of Minnesota partners are led by Jeffrey Peterson, director of the U of M Water Resources Center and professor in the Department of Applied Economics, and include Paige Novak (Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering), Vipin Kumar (Computer Science and Engineering), Tianhong Cui (Mechanical Engineering) and Jeff Strock (Soil, Water and Climate). Their roles in the potential project would include developing new water management and treatment technologies that recover useful resources, including sensors to monitor and manage these systems.

U of M: Thinking Big
University of Minnesota Vice President for Research Shashank Priya lauded both groups for putting together large and complex partnerships and for the breadth of their visions. 

“I think that the NSF Engines has really widened the aperture through which members of our research community envision their work and their impact,” he said. “Whether as leaders or as partners, they are taking on big societal challenges and collaborating with people across industry, government, nonprofits and individual communities in unprecedented ways. It’s a very exciting time and the potential payoff for our region and our nation is great.”

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