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UNCW Leaders Head Group Contending For $160M Federal Grant

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Dec 18, 2023
The North Carolina Ecosystem Technology (NCET) group has 13 months and $1 million to put together a proposal vying for a $160 million grant from the National Science Foundation.  

The group was created in May when it received a $1 million development award. NCET is one of 44 organizations in the country to receive funding to gather information for a formal proposal. 

The collaborative effort across multiple institutions in eastern North Carolina is working to create the framework for an innovation engine. That means acquiring financial resources to advance aquaculture, renewable energy and coastal infrastructure, said NCET Research Program Manager, Paige O’Neill.

By utilizing the area’s natural resources, leaders of the group want to find innovative ways to sustainably ramp up production of fisheries and hatcheries. Other innovation avenues include improving coastal infrastructure like flood mitigation technology, monitoring and sensing. 

Multiple universities in middle and eastern North Carolina are involved in NCET, splitting the effort and resources to produce the federal proposal. East Carolina University, Duke University, N.C. A&T, Carteret Community College, Cape Fear Community College, University of North Carolina Wilmington and RTI International make up NCET. 

Each university’s research strengths can be utilized for the innovation engine. UNCW’s marine science unit could be put to use while others could specialize in monitoring tools for flooding, O’Neill said.

Eleven principal investigators lead the organization’s research -- one of them is Ken Halanych, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. He is also the director of the NCET consortium and grant administration. Other principal investigators include Reide Corbett, executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute and dean of Integrated Coastal Programs at ECU, and Brian Silliman, a professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. 

The National Science Foundation Engines Type II Grant awards $160 million to about four organizations nationally over 10 years. NCET is one of two organizations applying from the state, O’Neill said, the other is called Clean Carolinas. 

“NCET looks to engage communities so that we might better understand the regional needs, especially in climate resilient infrastructure and aquaculture development,” Halanych said. “This will be accomplished through promoting connections between constituent innovators, entrepreneurs, and community partners to lead to economic and workforce development.”

If NCET is chosen to receive the $160 million, organization officials are hoping to spark scientifically-led growth similar to that of Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh area circa 1958. Whereas the Research Triangle specializes in biotech, NCET hopes to create an engine for ecotech or ecosystem technology. 

Now, the group is identifying the needs of its region of service, which is east of Interstate 95, which separates the eastern third of North Carolina. Through resident focus groups, workshops across the region and partnerships with local governments and councils they aim to improve coastal and technological workforce development. 

The group is also partnered with local entrepreneurs who have a stake in aquaculture or coastal resiliency, O’Neill said. Two of these are Natrx and Native Shorelines, which both work to protect shorelines using materials that won’t harm the existing ecosystem. 

“We have a lot of partners," O’Neill said, "but we need a lot more."
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