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Inaugural Recipients of Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund Awards Announced

Strategic seed funding aims to propel projects with high-impact societal potential

Northwestern University has selected eight innovative and high-potential research projects in the life sciences to receive critical seed funding from the Pat & Shirley Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund. This new resource provides vital bridge funding for promising initiatives within Northwestern’s $1 billion research portfolio, targeting efforts nearing the end of their public financing but not yet ready for private-sector investment — a precarious phase known as the “Valley of Death” in the startup world.

The projects represent the acceleration fund’s inaugural awards and address challenges ranging from sleep quality and medical imaging to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. 

Led by scientists and engineers from across the University, these research projects focus on extending and improving the quality of human life, exemplifying a Northwestern strategic priority to advance the biosciences and produce real-world results. 

From left: Shana Kelley, Milan Mrksich, Xinlong Wang

The inaugural cohort was chosen (out of 72 proposals) because their projects have great translational potential to make a meaningful and immediate impact on society. The acceleration fund is an important new avenue to propel Northwestern research innovation, supporting promising investigations that can lead to discoveries, therapies, devices and diagnostics. By design, the seed funding will advance research that falls into the “gap” between initial results and being eligible for federal grants or private-sector investment.  

A gift from the Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H (’97, ’00 P) Family established the Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund in 2022 to advance promising translational research discoveries in engineering and medicine. These seed grants — to be awarded twice yearly — enable faculty to undertake promising, sometimes high-risk research that often leads to breakthroughs and additional funding. Each project will receive up to $300,000 for one year. The typical funding period is one year.

“We see the acceleration fund as a translational game-changer for Northwestern,” Patrick G. Ryan said. “By strategically targeting exceptional basic research, we are bridging a critical gap that often hinders groundbreaking projects from achieving their full potential. This support will propel innovative research to solve society’s most pressing challenges while encouraging cross-field collaboration, furthering Northwestern’s unique interdisciplinary strengths.”

Ryan expressed confidence that the inaugural projects will make remarkable progress and exert a transformative impact that inspires future innovations.

“With the generous support of the Ryan Family, Northwestern’s incredible faculty now have a strategic new outlet that better positions them for translating their high-impact work in the life sciences,” Provost Kathleen Hagerty said. “We are eager to see all that these awardees accomplish and to build on their success for the benefit of society.”

“The acceleration fund creates tremendous opportunities for Northwestern, empowering our faculty to pursue trailblazing research that, while bold and promising, is positioned between traditional funding by federal agencies and the private sector,” said Eric J. Perreault, vice president for research. “The number of high-quality applications we received is both thrilling and expected, showcasing our research community’s drive to pursue innovations with societal impact. We are profoundly grateful to the Ryan Family for their steadfast support of Northwestern research excellence.”

The projects highlight the flourishing interdisciplinary teamwork across the University, with 16 faculty members from the Feinberg School of Medicine, the McCormick School of Engineering, and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences participating in the research. The principal investigators and their projects are:

Shana Kelley

This research project is pursuing a first-in-class, highly efficient, nontoxic intracellular protein delivery system with the potential to fight cancer, neurodegenerative disease, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. The technique employs selective target degradation and superior ease of use to maximize therapeutic potential with the goal of clinical translation.

Kelley is the Neena B. Schwartz Professor of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering at Weinberg and Northwestern Engineering, professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Chicago.

Milan Mrksich

This project aims to develop highly specific and effective diagnostics and potential therapeutics to monitor and treat Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive disorder with a substantial societal impact. The research targets the neurotoxic molecules (amyloid beta oligomers) that cause the disease. ModuMab Therapeutics, a recent Northwestern startup, is commercializing this approach to new therapeutics that could broadly impact the immunotherapy field. 

Mrksich is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering, professor of chemistry, and professor of cell and developmental biology. William Klein, a professor of neurology, is a co-primary investigator.

Xinlong Wang

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, where about 5 percent of the population suffers from myocardial infarction. This project looks to treat myocardial infarction by developing a minimally invasive injectable bioresorbable cellular cardiac patch with a built-in cardiac sensor and stimulator. This research could eventually be deployed in clinical settings to address an urgent societal health problem.  

Wang is research assistant professor at the Center for Advanced Regenerative Engineering. Co-principal investigators are Guillermo Ameer, the Daniel Hale Williams Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and professor of surgery at Feinberg; and John Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurological Surgery.

Michael MarklLester B. and Frances T. Knight Professor of Cardiac Imaging and professor of biomedical engineering, is a co-principal investigator on the project spearheaded by Bradley Allen, chief of cardiovascular and thoracic imaging and assistant professor of radiology at Feinberg. The project will leverage deep learning to measure aorta blood flow in patients at high risk for thoracic aorta aneurysms, a highly prevalent condition affecting more than 500,000 people annually. In addition to driving beneficial health outcomes, the project will use AI in conjunction with widely available, lower-cost CT or MRI scans to replace highly specialized 4D-flow MRI with a plan to seek FDA clearance for the technology.

Other University faculty primary investigators include:

  • Irina Balyasnikova, professor of neurological surgery at Feinberg
  • Navdeep Chandel, David W. Cugell MD Professor of Medicine in the division of pulmonary and critical care at Feinberg
  • Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Weinberg
  • Robert Vassar, professor of neurology and of cell and developmental biology at Feinberg 

The Ryan Family Research Acceleration Fund website provides information on the deadline to submit a proposal for the next round of funding and the expected start date for the awards. Inquiries may also be directed to