Innovation Grants

Salk Institute for Biological Studies - Innovation Grants

Innovation Grants


Salk’s Innovation Grants program, launched in 2006 from the forward-thinking minds of then-Board chair Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan, embodies the vision and spirit of the Institute that bears Jonas Salk’s name. The Innovation Grants Program is designed to fund out-of-the-box ideas that hold significant promise but may not yet have the track record to attract attention from more traditional funding sources.

“When we first started the program, our hope was that it would increase support of the Institute in two key ways,” say the Jacobs. “First, we wanted it to inspire others to support the program. Second, our hope was that as Salk brought in new faculty members those recruits would be able to generate additional grant monies to support their work. So far we have seen significant successes all around so that’s very encouraging.”

The Jacobs’ commitment of $8 million since the start of the Innovation Grants Program helped Salk secure additional philanthropic contributions from the Rose Hills Foundation, James Melcher and April Benasich, Fondation Ipsen, and Elizabeth Keadle. Since then, Salk researchers have gone on to leverage the early results from the Innovation Grants funded research to access more substantial investments from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) BRAIN Initiative, the Keck Foundation and other prominent grant-makers.

Awarded semi-annually by peer review, Salk’s Innovation Grants Program are critical to sustaining emerging science with the power to redefine the future. Akin to a petri dish for growing and testing new ideas that might otherwise never see the light of a lab, the program already prompted a host of discoveries. The most recent class of recipients are evidence of the continued impact Innovation Grants awards have on Salk research.

Congratulations to the Joan and Irwin Jacobs December 2018 Innovation Grant awardees!

Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua-Belmonte of the Gene Expression Laboratory seeks to determine whether trans-generational epigenetic inheritance can take place in mammals. If possible, this would mean that the experiences that have shaped the genetic expression of parents (e.g., adaptations to environmental challenges) could be passed to children—a significant question in evolutionary biology which remains unanswered.

Associate Professor Sreekanth Chalasani of the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory alongside Research Associate Chen-Min Yeh and Staff Scientist Gerald Pao seek to answer the question of whether or not brain activity can be used to control a robot. They will leverage advanced live microscopy techniques, in addition to supercomputer technology, to see whether or not the brain activity of zebrafish larvae can control a fish robot.

Professor and Laboratory Head David Schubert of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory will work with Staff Scientist Antonio Currais to identify new drug candidates for Alzheimer’s disease using screens for mitochondrial dysfunction. Specifically, they will look at a large library of plant extracts that have pharmacological value to see any have protective traits that are able to preserve mitochondrial function—one of the earliest clinical challenges in Alzheimer’s.

Joseph Ecker, a Professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and the Director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory, is working to develop a method that allows researchers to record the transcriptional activity within a cell into the genetic code so that they can analyze the cascade of transcriptional events that occur during an organism’s development as well as cell reprogramming.

Professor Edward Callaway in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory is undertaking a project that will develop innovative methods for flexible, high-throughput analysis of specific brain-cell types across any species, including humans, that can identify the genetic enhancers that restrict expression of genes that have been passed from one cell (or whole organism) to another.


Congratulations to The Rose Hills Foundation and Joan and Irwin Jacobs July 2018 Innovation Grants awardee:

Xin Jin, an associate professor, will explore how networks of neurons communicate with one another to relay messages from the brain to the limbs. His lab uses research techniques in novel combinations to discover previously unknown connections between brain regions and how they contribute to movement control. Jin’s work may lead to new avenues for treating disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Congratulations to the Joan and Irwin Jacobs July 2018 Innovation Grants awardees:

Thomas Albright, professor and director of the Vision Research Laboratory, will work with Staff Scientist Sergei Gepshtein to investigate the neurological basis of how individuals recognize others, which could lead to better ways to identify suspects during criminal investigations. The goal is to help reduce cases where innocent people are misidentified during lineups.

Wolfgang Busch, associate professor, Uri Manor (core director, Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Core) and Saket Navlakha (assistant professor) will explore the biological algorithms that guide how plants grow and pattern their root systems in search of nutrients. This research may uncover how plants can efficiently find water and other elements in the soil, advancing Salk’s efforts to engineer plants capable of surviving increasingly erratic climate patterns.

Jesse Dixon, a Helmsley-Salk Fellow, is exploring how mutations in individual cells can lead to the development of cancer. His team seeks to understand tumors’ evolutionary histories and potentially reveal new strategies that can halt tumor progression by interrupting the evolution of cells from normal to cancerous.

Susan Kaech, professor and director of the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, and Ronald Evans, professor and director of the Gene Expression Laboratory and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will embark on a study of lipid metabolism as a weapon in the fight against pancreatic cancer, a notoriously difficult-to-treat disease.