This robot, dubbed the “octobot,” is the world’s first robot comprised entirely of soft materials. Unlike traditional robots, this prototype, developed by researchers at Harvard University, does not need batteries or electronics to operate. One day, more sophisticated, entirely soft robots like these may find themselves in our everyday lives.

Biological Technologies

Curious about the Biological Technologies space? We have broken up potential investment areas into ten categories. See what we are looking to fund and learn about the space. If anything below seems interesting, learn more at the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Program.

Agricultural and Food Safety Biotechnology

New approaches for meeting the world’s future nutritional needs that involve the development of new technology that is primarily based in the biotechnology area. For Agricultural Biotechnology, target areas for improvement may include (but are not limited to) drought tolerance, improved nutritional value, enhanced disease resistance, and higher yield. Proposers should give consideration to technologies that enhance biodiversity, produce less carbon dioxide, and use less water and fertilizer. For Food Safety, this may include handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness, as well as origins of food including the practices relating to food tracking, hygiene, additives, and certification systems.


Thanks to an NSF SBIR award, small business PharmaSeq is developing a microchip with a sensor that can be injected into live cells to transmit information without a physical connection. (Image above shows relative chip size in comparison to ants.) Credit: PharmaSeq

Biosensors are sensors that contain a biologically-based sensing element. Proposed projects might include (but are not limited to) real-time sensors, microbial component-based sensors, sensors for monitoring fluxes of metabolites, nanobiotechnology-based sensors, biomedical sensors, and micro- or nanofluidic-based sensors. Application areas of interest may include (but are not limited to) toxicity testing, food safety, drug evaluation, environmental monitoring, and bio-prospecting. Other types of sensors should refer to the EI topic.

Life Sciences Research Tools

Developing novel technologies that will advance scientific research across the biological spectrum. This may include enabling technologies for drug discovery (high-throughput screening assays and platforms, and high-content screening assays and platforms; novel high-content screening technologies based on characterization of physical properties of cells are of high interest). Proposals should focus primarily on the development of innovative consumables, processes, and services where there is significant market opportunity. In addition, we are interested in new tools for brain research, especially those that aid in addressing fundamental neurobiological questions about brain function, laying the groundwork for advancing treatments for nervous system disorders or traumatic brain injury, and for generating brain-inspired “smart” technologies to meet future societal needs.


The development of technology for novel or improved instrumentation primarily for biological research applications. In addition, this may include low cost instruments for science and engineering that are aimed at students or others in working in low resource settings.

Synthetic Biology and Metabolic Engineering

Using synthetic biology to engineer novel biologically-based (or inspired) functions that do not exist in nature. Proposed projects may include creating new manufacturing capability by designing microorganisms, plants, and cell-free systems for the production of novel chemicals and biomolecules. Applications may include (but are not limited to) health-care products, food ingredients, chemicals, and other biomaterials such as enzymes and bio-based polymers.

Fermentation and Cell Culture Technologies

Proposed projects might include (but are not limited to) novel or improved microbial fermentation or mammalian and plant cell culture technologies, bioreactors, processes, scale-up, development of expression platforms, and purification. This may include technology development for pilot and large scale manufacturing of biopharmaceutical and other products.

Computational Biology and Bioinformatics

Developing and applying computationally intensive techniques (e.g., pattern recognition data mining, machine learning algorithms, and visualization) and may include (but are not limited to) sequence alignment, gene finding, genome assembly, drug design, drug discovery, protein structure alignment, protein structure prediction, prediction of gene expression and protein-protein interactions, genome-wide association studies, and the modeling of evolution. Proposed projects might include the creation and advancement of databases, algorithms, computational and statistical techniques, and theory to solve problems arising from the management and analysis of biological data.

Advanced Biomanufacturing

The aim of this new area is to standardize the processes for tissue-engineered regenerative medicine therapies to bring down costs and to make the manufacturing processes more reproducible, economical, efficient, and sustainable. This may include the development of manufacturing technology for tissue engineering, including the construction of whole human tissues and organs for drug screening and transplants, as well as cell-based and personalized therapies, or regenerative medicine, that use cells as part of patches and implants.

Advanced technologies for functional genomics in organismal systems

The aim of this program is to support the development of tools, reagents and resources for emerging plant and animal model systems. These products are needed to expedite the identification of genes that control development, behavior and physiology. Projects of interest include high through-put phenotyping, technologies and tools to enable the genetic manipulation of novel species, strategies for identifying causative genes, and the development of new functional assay systems.

Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine

Proposed projects may include enabling bioengineering and biomanufacturing technologies and systems that will advance the research, development, quality control, and production of artificial tissues and their derivatives in scientific, therapeutic, and/or commercial applications. Proposed projects may also include novel methods or technologies to replace or regenerate damaged or diseased cells, tissues, or organs to restore or establish their normal function.

What is the National Science Foundation?

As described in our strategic plan, NSF is the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, except for medical sciences. We are tasked with keeping the United States at the leading edge of discovery in areas from astronomy to geology to zoology. So, in addition to funding research in the traditional academic areas, the agency also supports “high-risk, high pay-off” ideas, novel collaborations and numerous projects that may seem like science fiction today, but which the public will take for granted tomorrow. And in every case, we ensure that research is fully integrated with education so that today’s revolutionary work will also be training tomorrow’s top scientists and engineers.

Small Business Innovation Research

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards nearly $190 million annually to startups and small businesses through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, transforming scientific discovery into products and services with commercial and societal impact. The non-dilutive grants support research and development (R&D) across almost all areas of science and technology helping companies de-risk technology for commercial success.

To learn more about SBIR/STTR, visit NSF-SBIR.

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