CNSI awards Noble Family Innovation Fund grants to 10 UCLA nanoscience research teams

Interdisciplinary projects advance computing, human health and sustainability


by Wayne Lewis

Ten unique and highly promising projects — including researchers in materials science, engineering, information technology, environmental sustainability, and life and biomedical sciences were selected from an initial round of 79 letters of intent.

A new UCLA fund for high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary investigations has awarded its first set of grants. The Noble Family Innovation Fund, established with a $10 million philanthropic commitment to the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, supports basic and translational research involving interactions on the nanoscale — measured in billionths of a meter. Funding is earmarked for projects with substantial promise for commercialization and societal impact. The goal is to create a model for academic research and entrepreneurship that enables strategic investment to seed discoveries that have the potential to be translated for the public good.

A call for proposals was issued in March 2021. Now, the CNSI has announced the first set of awards from the Noble Family Innovation Fund, totaling up to $250,000 each over two years and $2.35 million overall. Ten unique and highly promising projects — including researchers in materials science, engineering, information technology, environmental sustainability, and life and biomedical sciences — were selected from an initial round of 79 letters of intent in a competitive process, with half of the funded teams led or co-led by women. Notably, four of the projects receiving grants relate to sustainability and clean energy technologies — a topic aligned with UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.

“The Noble Family Innovation Fund adds momentum to our efforts at the CNSI to facilitate basic discovery, and to translate our discoveries into knowledge-driven commercial enterprises,” said Jeff F. Miller, UCLA’s Fred Kavli Professor of NanoSystems Sciences and the director of the CNSI. “This is a remarkable example of philanthropy with the potential to not only accelerate game-changing technologies on the path to the market — where they can do the most good for the most people — but also feed job creation in California.”

The following projects received grants this year:

Big data and artificial intelligence

  • A team headed by Xiangfeng Duan, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a CNSI member, is advancing photonics — energy-efficient technologies that use particles of light in place of the electrons used in electronics — for applications such as artificial intelligence and image capture. The team will explore ways to improve signal processing using two-dimensional materials, which are arranged in layers only a few atoms thick and derive special qualities from quantum mechanics.


  • A collaboration led by CNSI member Keriann Backus, assistant professor of biological chemistry and of chemistry and biochemistry, aims to develop a new method for mapping the protein interactions that are fundamental to almost every process in living things. The ability to label proteins with iodine using laser-mediated excitation could accelerate our understanding of the millions of interactions that are regulated by proteins in human cells, including interactions with drug molecules.
  • Catherine Cahill, professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, is heading up a team seeking to curb opioid addiction, which is in part driven by users’ ability to concentrate and inhale or inject drugs such as oxycodone. The researchers are exploring a method for rendering opioids inactive unless digested in the stomach, as well as slowing their release into the body.
  • CNSI member Ming Guo, the P. Gene and Elaine Smith Professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research and professor of neurology and of molecular and medical pharmacology, leads a team addressing age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The investigators aim to identify drugs that eliminate mutated DNA in mitochondria — the powerhouses of the cell. Such mutations appear increasingly with age and are associated with a host of disorders.
  • A project dedicated to using yeast to produce potential medicinal compounds naturally found in the cannabis plant is helmed by CNSI member Yi Tang, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering, and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Neil Garg, the Kenneth N. Trueblood Endowed Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and chair and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry. This is the first UCLA-based grant to utilize the CNSI’s new Living Biofoundry, established through the National Science Foundation–funded BioPACIFIC Materials Innovation Platform.
  • A team led by Tian Xia, an associate adjunct professor of nanomedicine and CNSI member, is advancing a potential treatment for severe food allergies. The investigators have generated a nanoparticle meant to deliver an allergen directly to cells in the liver that regulate immune responses, potentially causing the body to tolerate that allergen.

Sustainability and clean energy technologies

  • CNSI member Siobhan Braybrook, assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and Timothy Malloy, the Frank G. Wells Professor of Environmental Law, lead a project focused on genetically engineering kelp and other forms of brown algae to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as mapping the legal and regulatory issues related to such a technology.
  • A team led by CNSI member Richard Kaner, the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Professor of Materials Innovation and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and of materials science and engineering, and Yuzhang Li, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is furthering an approach for energy storage based on abundant, nontoxic zinc rather than lithium. The team’s goal is to create technology for grid-level batteries that store energy from sustainable but intermittent sources such as the sun and wind.
  • A project developing a zero–carbon footprint process for generating hydrogen for energy is led by Tim Fisher, the John P. and Claudia H. Schauerman Endowed Professor of Engineering and chair and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Yves Rubin, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, both of whom are members of the CNSI. The team’s strategy would use sunlight to cleanly turn methane into hydrogen and graphite, a raw material for batteries.
  • CNSI member Amy Rowat, associate professor and vice chair of integrative biology and physiology, leads a team advancing a process for creating customized, labmade meat. By growing tissue on an edible scaffold, the researchers intend to produce food that can mimic the taste and texture of different cuts of steak without the environmental detriments that come with traditional livestock farming and processing.

Research support provided by the Noble Family Innovation Fund will also fund these teams’ access to the advanced imaging, screening, fabrication and chemical synthesis facilities available through the CNSI’s Technology Centers. Any entrepreneurial ventures that eventually spin off from these projects will be able to apply to join Magnify, the CNSI’s startup incubator.

CNSI is organizing a series of webinars in fall 2021 to highlight this initial set of Noble Family Innovation Fund research projects. There will be additional calls for proposals in early 2022 and 2023. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to contact grants@cnsi.ucla.edu.