The University of Washington will be a testing ground for Amazon Catalyst, a grant-making program designed to dole out funds to research world-changing ideas.

Share story

Amazon.com is getting into the university grant-making business, launching a new program Thursday to fund research into big, world-changing ideas at universities.

The program, Amazon Catalyst, will debut at the University of Washington.

Amazon hopes to fund research into ideas in complex and vexing areas such as climate change and immigration. And the company is keen to put money toward “early-stage ideas” that might not otherwise get grant money.

In announcing the program, Amazon isn’t putting a limit on the amount it will dole out. But Adam Siegel, Amazon Catalyst’s managing director, said the “ballpark” range would run from “tens of thousands of dollars” to $100,000 per grant. He said Amazon hasn’t set a limit on the number of projects it will fund or the duration of Catalyst.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“We’re intentionally keeping this very broad,” Siegel said.

Throughout its 20-year life, Amazon has been significantly less active in Seattle philanthropy than some of the region’s other corporate titans, such as Microsoft and Boeing. But the University of Washington has been a past recipient of its largesse. In 2012, the company gave the school a $2 million endowment to establish two Amazon professorships in machine learning.

Catalyst’s grants won’t be limited to computer science. It’s looking for research projects in any discipline — the humanities, social sciences and the arts, as well as well-funded research fields such as medicine and engineering. The only criterion is that the research must address a complex challenge.

“The general guidelines (for proposals are) they need to be bold. They need to be creative,” Siegel said.

Amazon is encouraging a wide variety of ideas and has opened the program to any staff, student or faculty member at the University of Washington. So a nurse at the University of Washington Medical Center can apply as easily as a tenured professor in marine biology.

“You don’t have to have a track record,” Siegel said. “It could very well fail. … We understand that.”

Recipients will be known as Amazon Catalyst fellows.

The money from Catalyst addresses research that’s not paid for by either big government-research grants or smaller angel investments that fund business ideas, said Vikram Jandhyala, the university’s vice provost of innovation.

“It fits in the gap,” Jandhyala said. “This is a great model for us.”

The university and fellows will retain ownership of the research developed with the grant money. But Amazon will receive nonexclusive royalty-free licenses to use the research.

To receive the funds, applicants will need to submit ideas on the Catalyst website — catalyst.amazon.com/. Those whose ideas are deemed worthy will meet with members of the three-person selection comment to discuss their proposals. Then, the committee, whose members haven’t yet been named, will vote on the idea.

There is no deadline for applications, and no competition for money. Catalyst will hand out grants to the proposals it believes are most worthy, and develop the program over time. Eventually, Siegel expects Catalyst to expand to other universities.

Siegel said Amazon decided to fund the program because it wants to make Seattle a more creative community.

“We really want to support the University of Washington and we want to make people want to come here to invent,” Siegel said.