University of Chicago’s high-risk research fund focuses on the weird and wonderful

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UChicago's Big Ideas Generator invests in research projects that could have a transformative impact on their fields.

By Emma Richards 

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The University of Chicago understands that ground-breaking, world-changing, pioneering breakthroughs don’t come easily. Any truly great idea comes with an element of risk and it can be tricky to convince investors that those risks are worth gambling their money on.

But if the academic world were to limit their innovation and advancements to only the easy stuff, then that wouldn’t really be innovation at all.

Recognising the value of out-of-the-box thinking, the UChicago’s new seed funding programme aims to breakdown the barriers between ambitious risk averse academics and the capital they so badly need to explore their ideas.

The Big Ideas Generator, or BIG, invests in research projects that could have a transformative impact on their fields. It tackles the areas of research that are perhaps too nascent for traditional sources of funding; those that build unique partnerships across typically siloed scientific disciplines, and open new areas of research.


A growing body of research shows that institutional constraints imposed by large federal agencies severely limit risk-taking for researchers, especially those early in their careers. As a result, the US science and technology innovation pipeline is shrinking, leading to a pile-up of low-risk, low-reward research.

BIG flips this approach on its head, instead looking to fund high-risk, high-reward research. Projects the fund has already invested in include research to see if electrical stimulation of the brain can change a bad memory to a good one.

The project, run by David Gallo chair of the University’s Department of Psychology, sought to determine the extent to which electrical brain stimulation can influence a person’s ability to recollect emotional experiences. The research had the potential to provide a new technique for artificially manipulating emotional memories. But with high-risk inevitably comes a higher chance of failure.

Gallo’s experiment didn’t have the outcome he and his team had anticipated. But this, according to Director of Research Innovation and BIG programme architect Elena Zinchenko, is all part of the scientific journey and still worth every penny of investment.


Zinchenko told UChicago News that she hopes the broader scientific community is beginning to see the value of failure.

Like any good researcher, Zinchenko’s sentiment isn’t without evidence to back it up.

A 2015 article in the journal Nature showed that scientific innovation is being smothered by a culture of conformity and that taking risks could potentially lead to more ground-breaking research.

The BIG programme hopes to be at the forefront of this progress. Not only does it offer financial support but also strategic support from UChicago staff, who are on hand to assist in proposal development, targeting federal funding, and bringing together relevant academics.

“The BIG programme is a very good mixture of idealism and pragmatism,” said Zinchenko.

“It restores the main reason why people do research: because they want to explore new frontiers.”