Answering your questions about SfTI seed Call for Proposals 2019

Here are some answers to the questions raised by attendees at our two webinars held on February 7 and 12, 2019.

Q: Can businesses apply for seed funding?

A: New Zealand-based research organisations are eligible to apply for SfTI Seed project funding, including New Zealand businesses that can show appropriate research capability. The research team must be relevant for the project and appropriately experienced. Applicants will need to show that their intended research is cutting-edge in the physical sciences / engineering fields and has the potential to benefit New Zealand. 

SfTI seed project funding supports early stage research and stretchy, risky science that a business would not normally fund themselves - not research that is more advanced towards the development stage. This means that for businesses that focus on both Research (R) & Development (D), the focus needs to be on the R and not too far towards the D. The Call for Proposals explains that SfTI funds technologies up to TRL 4 at the most.

SfTI can also support the progress of your project through funded capacity development.

Q: What is meant by mentorship?  Does the mentor have to be in science or project management? 

A: If a junior researcher is the project leader, then a senior researcher could provide advice and support for them as they lead the project.  This support could be technical support or project management support, whichever is needed to make the project work as smoothly as possible.

We expect junior researchers to show willingness to be mentored in this regard. 

Also, the mentor doesn’t have to be 0 FTE, if they have a bigger role in the project; it is acceptable to give them some FTE.

Q: What is the cut off for defining an emerging researcher? Is it 7 years at date of submission, or at the start of the Seed project itself?

A:  While 7 years is the strict definition, this is not too critical as long as you can show that you are early in your research career and the project is a chance to lead research for the first time. So make the case in the application that you are an emerging leader – this would be seen as a positive attribute even if you are slightly over 7 years since your highest degree.  Given this flexibility we are not going to differentiate between less 7 years at submission of your application and greater than 7 years at the start of the project. Also, remember that any project leader is able to apply – we are favouring emerging leaders in the assessment criteria - but anyone is welcome to apply with their new science idea!

Q: What social science projects you are interested in?

A: Firstly, any alignment with Portfolio 1 Building New Zealand’s Innovation Capacity (BNZIC) would be expected to be a secondary alignment, with the project having a primary alignment with one of the scientific/technical themes.  So any methodology drawn from social science must be applied to a technical context. The project needs to focus on scientists. Industry people could also be OK if the proposed research is about industry relationships with science. For instance, the project should offer novel insights into how we build those relationships.

Also, check that what you are proposing is not duplicated in Portfolio 1.  Portfolio 1 looks across the SfTI spearheads and seeds and is focused on human and relational processes associated with these SfTI projects.   

Q:  Will the selection criteria be any different for a proposal from a postdoctoral researcher under contract as opposed to someone who is a lecturer?

A: No. We want to support people towards the beginning of their careers, and we are interested in the great ideas you can bring to the SfTI Challenge.  Whether you are a post-doc and/or a lecturer is of interest to us, but the employment arrangements for your role are not relevant as long as your employer is a reputable research organisation. And a follow up point – there is a difference in this Seed round.  SfTI is willing to pay the full funding out in 1 year, so there will be sufficient funds to more fully support a post-doctoral position (higher cost than a student) for one year. 

Q: I am unsure whether to specify a stage gate date when I aim to complete, or when I am sure to complete? Or would it be possible to specify a date range?

A: This is a common issue and we expect a date rather than a range. We want you to undertake risky science, but we also want you to set time lines so that you do not ‘go down a rabbit hole’ that ends up wasting time and resources. We would prefer you to fail fast.  In your planning you need to set a reasonable end date by which your scientific process can be explored to a good extent such that you feel you should reach the goal if it is ever going to be possible.  We would advise not to make this too early or you will put yourself under undue pressure!  However, if too long then your project may appear less challenging to the assessors. Also remember, that pivoting is OK if the planned research does not work out but indicates that a different approach or direction is more promising.  If you can foresee some alternative approaches or directions, try to build them into your research plan as options as indicated below.

Q:  What is a free pivot and would you expect the free pivot to be identified in the methodology/plan?

A:  It’s not compulsory that you identify the pivot up front.  Applicants should state the primary research path you want to follow.

However, if you can identify an alternate process, then do this in the application - but we don’t expect this.  You can describe some options, and tell us what those options or pathways are.   We want you to think about, and say upfront, what option you are going for, and that you might explore other options.  However if you can’t do this, we don’t want you to feel constrained to fit with the original plan.   We want it to free up your science.   Also if you do state options up front then you may not need the free pivot because you’ve already described another direction as part of your research plan.

Note that pivoting does not mean changing to a whole new project – it still has to be within the terms of the overarching objective you have stated in the proposal as trying to reach, and we wouldn’t expect to see lots of new expertise or resources requested as a result.  Pivots are expected to be to a related or slightly different direction. If you hit an interesting new direction, which is unexpected when you started, we want you to be able to follow this (as far as budget will allow)

Note SfTI is still planning how to make this work from a practical and contractual point of view. 

Q: I am an established researcher and thought I might get some more funding for my mega project by bringing in a post-doc.

A: SfTI is not about funding the extension of existing projects and programmes of research.  We are looking for new ideas and we will assess applications that propose programme extensions less favourably.  We want to be sure that an emerging project leader is genuinely going to take the lead in the project, and not just follow the senior leader’s orders.

Q: Is there a minimum FTE for an AI?

A: No, there’s no minimum.   Please note we prefer to see a few people working significant FTE, rather than a lot of people at low FTE.  However, the FTE should be appropriate for the project.  For instance, if any researcher has low FTE, and their expertise is critical for the project, then that may not be a convincing team.  The assessment panel will look at whether the research team is appropriate and compelling for what you intend to do.

Q: What does zero FTE for mentoring mean?  

A:  We want active mentorship and we like the idea that junior researchers can lead a seed project but we see that a connection to a mentor is very desirable at this stage of their career.  The mentor should usually be zero FTE as we only want to see FTE in the team of the researchers providing a substantive contribution to the research work.  We don’t want to see an established researcher FTE and CV when they aren’t really contributing directly to the research. 

Q: Can we include an oversea researcher?

A:  Yes you can, but we can’t fund an overseas researcher for their time. The project could fund some travel to visit them or for them to visit you, but you would have to make the case in your application that the travel was critical for the project.  The funding can be used for you to spend time with an overseas research group if there is critical expertise that you need to access off shore.  You must explain in your application why it is critical to what you are trying to achieve.

Q: What are the conditions for co-funding?

A:  We are happy to see co-funding.  However we want to fund research that might not otherwise occur so we do not expect co-funding to be achieved. Projects should think broadly about how external funding and co-funding might be best directed, such as to support an international collaboration. 

Q: Can you explain the Vision Mātauranga assessment?

A: We are judging the Vision Mātauranga quality through three principles or ‘pou’. 
1) The level of incorporation of Māori knowledge in the proposal (applications can get up to three points for that), 2) by the level of relationships with Māori and participation by Māori in the proposal (can score another two points); and by the level to which the research will benefit Māori in some way (up to two points). This last one is about the priority or impact for Māori, so even if the project was not high impact it may be a high priority area for Māori and so would get a point for that.

Based on these principles, the applications can score up to seven points for how these dimensions feature in the proposal. An application may not score all seven points and we don’t really expect that it would. Applications should focus on the few areas where you are strong.  We are realistic that projects may not spread across all the areas or hit all aspects of Vision Mātauranga that are possible.

Q: What is the TRL and can you tell me about it?

A:  Technology Readiness Level or TRL is a standard scale that can be looked up on line.  SfTI is looking for projects at TRL up to 4, or at the proof of concept stage.  We are not looking to fund technology development that is beyond TRL 4 and well down the commercialisation pathway.

Q: Where will my novel IP for this project sit, and what about Spearheads?

A: The IP principles are the same for SfTI spearhead and seed projects.  SfTI is a virtual organisation and we do not want to own IP.  We want researchers and institutions to own and manage the IP as they are in the best position to do this. SfTI expects the project parties to work out and agree who will be the managing party for the commercialisation of IP.

We’re not against publishing – we expect you to make plans for the IP before you go to publication with those ideas.  Think about your idea and make sensible decisions that will not limit the potential for impact down the track.

Q:  Can a seed project become a spearhead?

A It is unlikely with the way tranche 2 of SfTI is being organised.  Seed projects arise as researcher-led project ideas.  Spearheads come from a different process which is top-down and mission led, where SfTI has gone out to industry and Māori businesses and stakeholders to find out what the big issues are from their perspective. Then we go to the research community and call for expressions of capability to develop a project to address those big issues.  In contrast, seeds are bottom-up project ideas from individuals.

We might see some seed project ideas merge with a larger spearhead if there is a synergy and it makes sense to include their capability. Plus, of course, seed project researchers may offer their capability to form and become part of a larger spearhead project research team.

SfTI can also support the progress of your project to the next stage through capacity development, for instance through developing your pitching skills. This is paid for by SfTI and will help you to progress your project.

Q: Are PhD students eligible to apply? 

A: Yes, but we would expect them to complete their PhD before the project starts so that they can undertake the project as a postdoctoral researcher. We would expect to see in the project team that they have good mentoring and support around them.  Please note that projects are only able to start once the full team is in place (e.g. completion of their PhD for a post-doctoral researcher).   

Q Would a recommendation letter from industry be helpful to confirm the need of the research?

A: If a company is keen to give support, it might suggest to us that the technology may be beyond the TRL 4.  We’d also want to know why, if it’s important to them, they aren’t they funding the research themselves?  If the research is speculative, but has the potential to open up a whole new area for their business, then  this could be of value and appropriate for SfTI seed funding as we are really trying to fund early stage research.  The involvement of a company might suggest the technology is further advanced than SfTI is looking to support.