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 philanthropic commitment to the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA totaling $10 million over three years, supports basic and translational research involving interactions on the nanoscale — measured in billionths of a meter.

The grants are earmarked for research that has substantial promise for commercialization and societal impact. A call for proposals was issued in March 2021. The following projects received grants:

Big data and artificial intelligence

  • A team headed by Xiangfeng Duan, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, 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 Keriann Backus, an 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, a professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, is heading a team seeking to curb opioid addiction, which is in part driven by users’ ability to inhale or inject drugs such as oxycodone, increasing the intensity and rapidity of the high. The researchers are exploring a method for rendering opioids inactive unless digested in the stomach, as well as slowing their release into the body.
  • Ming Guo, the P. Gene and Elaine Smith Professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research and a 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 Yi Tang, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, chemistry and biochemistry, and bioengineering, and Neil Garg, the Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department. 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, 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 building the body’s tolerance to that allergen.

Sustainability and clean energy technologies

  • Siobhan Braybrook, an 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 Richard Kaner, the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor of Materials Innovation and a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and of materials science and 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 Professor of Engineering and chair and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Yves Rubin, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry. The team’s strategy would use sunlight to cleanly turn methane into hydrogen and graphite, a raw material for batteries.
  • Amy Rowat, an associate professor 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. Further grants will be awarded in 2022 and 2023. 

► Read more about the 2021 Noble grants on the CNSI website.