My dad suffered a massive stroke two months after this picture was taken. Eighteen months later, he walked unassisted across a room for the first time. Despite reclaiming some abilities, his cognition, communication and motor skills will never be what they once were. Don’t get the wrong idea; he is by no means helpless. He is still a card shark who will rob you blind.
Ironically, after I became CEO of the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA), a public-private partnership founded in 2008 that invests in research that stimulates innovation, encourages collaboration and strengthens economic opportunity, a proposal for a research project came across my desk. The proposal was from a couple of the members of the ARA Academy of Scholars and Fellows — strategic, scientific leaders selected to the ARA Academy by the chancellors of Arkansas research universities. The researchers were seeking ARA Impact Grant funds to design, prove and scale-up a blood-clot removal device. It could not help but make me wonder, “What if?”
The ARA Impact Grant program was created as a pilot to accelerate research discovery and development. The process takes years and big-time money to bring a medical product to the bedside. The traditional federal agencies (such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health) that provide major grants to aid this process require preliminary research data before they will even consider backing a project. Obtaining that data takes funding. Sounds like a catch-22.
Enter ARA Impact Grants. These are targeted, 12-month projects between $25,000 and $75,000. Academy members use them to generate preliminary data that better position them to compete for larger research grants. They are paying off, too. The pilot round invested $1 million across 15 projects, which included the blood-clot removal device. There was a 60/40 funding split between ARA and the researcher’s host institution. Despite pandemic delays and with about 60 percent of the projects reporting, they have returned close to $13 million in follow-up federal funding. The program proved so effective that ARA launched a second round of roughly the same scale this past March. It is energizing the ARA Academy researchers and seeks to validate the pilot round. Looking ahead, Impact Grants have the potential to be central to the future of research in Arkansas.
What if, heaven forbid, you or a loved one were one of the 795,000 people who experience a new or recurrent stroke annually? What if that stroke fell into the 87 percent of strokes caused by a mass or blood clot in an artery of the brain? Considering Arkansas and our surrounding states host the highest death rate from cardiovascular disease, the odds are not in our favor. But, what if all this research and development on the blood clot dissolving device started 10 years ago? Then maybe the odds would be more in our favor.
This is why ARA wants to bring these research leaders to you through this Discovery Economics column. Over the next several months, we want you to imagine the “what ifs” with us. We will present you with another sampling of Academy members. These five-star researchers leave no stone unturned when it comes to the Arkansas economy. They are leading the fight in helping agricultural production withstand higher night-time temperatures (Argelia Lorence, Arkansas State University), forging new applications for artificial intelligence in the food supply chain (Justin Zhan, University of Arkansas), preventing bacterial infection during and after surgery (Mark Smeltzer, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and helping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration keep our bodies and food sources safe (Steve Foley, National Center for Toxicological Research).
Other surprises are in store. We will be treated to the musings of Douglas Hutchings, director of the ARA Academy. We also plan to unveil a new research tool designed to leverage the presence of high-end research instrumentation here in the state. Please continue to check this space each month as we imagine together, “What if.”
Bryan Barnhouse is CEO of the Arkansas Research Alliance. Before joining ARA, he worked with the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.