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Growing sustainable agriculture

Posted 2:48 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Image of a field with blue sky

WiSys-led partnership including UWL wins $1 million NSF grant to lead in sustainable ag

A WiSys-led partnership has been awarded $999,911 from the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines (“NSF Engines”) program to make Wisconsin a global leader in sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable agriculture is farming practices aim to meet people's need for food and other goods today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

UW-La Crosse is part of the partnership, along with 29 other organizations from across Wisconsin. 

The award, "NSF Engines Development Award: Advancing Sustainable Agriculture in Wisconsin," will allow these organizations to lay the groundwork to develop an ambitious, effective and credible 'regional innovation engine' that harnesses the region's talent and intellectual capital to make Wisconsin a global leader in sustainable agriculture.

Demonstrating that capability will allow this group to compete for additional NSF resources and long-term support, including a possible NSF Engines Type 2 award of up to $160 million over 10 years.

“This NSF Engine could be a key economic driver for Wisconsin,” said WiSys President Arjun Sanga. “Just as a public-private partnership turned Wisconsin into the ‘Dairy State’ in the last century, this potential engine’s public-private partnership could have a profound impact on the future of the state and the world.”

The WiSys-led Wisconsin partnership is among 44 unique teams, and one of two in Wisconsin, to receive one of the first-ever NSF Engines Development Awards, which aim to help partners collaborate to create economic, societal, and technological opportunities for their regions. The awardees span a broad range of states and regions, reaching geographic areas that have not fully benefited from the technology boom of the past decades.

"These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation."

The WiSys-led partnership includes all 13 University of Wisconsin institutions, as well as a host of industry, nonprofit and government entities.

Project partners include:

  • University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
  • University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
  • University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation (The Rural Resiliency Project)
  • University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Foundation
  • University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
  • University of Wisconsin-Parkside
  • University of Wisconsin-Platteville
  • University of Wisconsin-River Falls
  • University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
  • University of Wisconsin-Stout
  • University of Wisconsin-Superior
  • University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
  • University of Wisconsin System Administration
  • Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
  • Wisconsin Technology Council
  • WiSys

Other supporters of this project include:

  • Annie's Project
  • Brigantia Ventures
  • Farming for the Future Foundation (Food and Farm Exploration Center) 
  • J.F. Brennan Company
  • Pablo Group
  • Small Business Development Center at University of Wisconsin-Superior
  • The Development Association
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Waste and Materials Management Program
  • Wisconsin Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy
  • Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

“With this NSF award, we have an opportunity to make Wisconsin a world-leader in sustainable agriculture,” said Sanga. “We must, however, continue to expand the engagement of all key stakeholders throughout the state and invest our time and resources in building a strong and inclusive partnership with a diversity of voices across the region. We’re thrilled to work with such a great, innovative group of partners. We’re excited to tie together the entire region in a meaningful way.”

Organizations interested in learning more about or contributing to these efforts are encouraged to reach out to the group at

Anticipated outcomes

The partnership plans to:

  • Translate use-inspired research through inter-institutional and industry collaborations
  • Bolster entrepreneurial support and deliver initiatives through WiSys VentureHome®—a network of local  innovation hubs.
  • Grow a skilled workforce through industry-focused coalitions and curriculum providers.
  • Support the launch of sustainability tech startups and products.
  • Attract investment capital from multiple sectors to fund audacious ideas in the field of sustainable agriculture.
  • nform policy recommendations that support sustainable practices.
  • Facilitate a technical and entrepreneurial skillset among underserved populations, across the demographics of gender, geography, race, and economic status.
  • Identify and prepare for future needs of the agricultural value chain, including workforce needs.

Defining the challenge

The plan to tackle sustainable agriculture was based on the collaborative work of the Wisconsin Bicentennial Innovation Challenges project, spearheaded by the three technology transfer offices of the University of Wisconsin System: Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW- Milwaukee Research Foundation and WiSys.

Through this formal collaboration, launched in 2019, project leaders set out to discover Wisconsin’s most significant challenges between now and the state’s 2048 bicentennial year. The group conducted interviews, brainstorming sessions and focus groups with more than 50 public and private stakeholders.

Through these efforts, sustainable agriculture and stewardship of natural resources emerged as a major challenge facing Wisconsin. This is also a topic of global significance and lies at the core of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

About the NSF Engines Program

Launched by NSF's new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships and authorized by the "CHIPS and Science Act of 2022," the NSF Engines program uniquely harnesses the nation's science and technology research and development enterprise and regional-level resources. NSF Engines aspire to catalyze robust partnerships to positively impact regional economies, accelerate technology development, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness, and create local, high-wage jobs.
View a map of the NSF Engines Development Awards. More information can be found on the NSF Engines program website.

About NSF

NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..." NSF is vital because we support basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future.

About WiSys

WiSys is a nonprofit organization that works with faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the UW System to facilitate cutting-edge research programs, develop, and commercialize discoveries, and foster a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.


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