Seed grant program evolving, growing with new Plan for Pitt

Graphic on Pitt Seed process


The Pitt Seed Project, which debuted in 2018, is getting a makeover to align with the new Plan for Pitt, and to encourage and promote more projects of institutional impact, according to Julia Spears, associate vice provost for academic innovation.

And, she said, now is the time for faculty and staff at all Pitt’s campuses to be thinking about those great ideas. The application process will begin in January. Spears said they have committed to three funding cycles between the spring semester and 2025, with the others starting in January 2023 and 2024. Potentially, one project could get up to $500,000 during each funding cycle. Full information about the process will be available soon on the Pitt Seed Projects website.

“The goal is to really find the nugget, the one project, that you would want to take from one small little space on campus and then scale so you have broad impact across the University,” she said. In each of the funding cycles, they plan to bring at least one project to the institutional level.

The original Pitt Seed program was geared toward the 2020 Plan for Pitt, which had six goal areas. The 2025 Plan for Pitt is broken into three areas — our people, our programs and our purpose — that the new seed grants will be focused on.

Spears said they reached out to the previous seed grant recipients — 86 over five cycles of funding — to see what had and hadn’t worked.

“How do we make sure that the programming that infuses some innovation money into grassroots efforts really is well constructed, and that we are responding to some of the feedback that we had before?” Spears said.

“Some of the feedback that we heard was they had this great idea that was separate from what they are currently doing in their job — whether they’re a faculty member or staff member — and they had challenges on how to execute this great idea … given the bureaucratic decentralized environment that is Pitt,” she said.

One of the big changes in the program will be to provide more support for applicants to address logistical problems with bringing their idea to fruition. The original Pitt Seed grants provided up to $50,000 for faculty or staff members to develop their idea, but there was no infrastructure for the University to pick up on these ideas and develop them further.

The new program will address issues of training and scaling through different phases of the project.

PHASE 1: Developing ideas and 90-second pitch videos

Now is the time to start thinking about “what if?” ideas to bring the Plan for Pitt to life, Spears said, such as: What if you had an idea to create a better student experience or to provide better support and training to faculty and staff.

Those ideas will need to be submitted between Jan. 7 and Feb. 7 in the form of a 90-second pitch video. Spears said quality of the videos won’t be judged, just the ideas.

PHASE 2: Cohort selection and training

Up to 30 projects will be selected from those videos. Those chosen will participate in six training sessions between the first week of March and the first week of May. Each project will receive $2,000.

“We’re paying people for their time to invest in the training,” Spears said. “I think it’ll help the grantees to better understand what they can and can’t do, and in real time, because we want to get the projects executed quicker.”

PHASE 3: Pitt Seed proposal funding

From those 30 projects, up to 10 will be awarded $75,000 and be the first cohort of “Pitt Seed 2.0.”

“The scale of these projects we think will be a little bigger,” Spears said.

The selected projects will be announced in June and funding will start in July 2022. Those projects will have a year to develop their ideas. Spears said the provost and the chancellor are very interested in: “What’s the impact that the project has made in the last year? How does it align to the Plan for Pitt? And is it something that we would want to see scale to other units and spaces on campus?”

“They’re very committed to supporting grassroots efforts that will have broad institutional impact and they wanted to see ways to strengthen that process,” Spears said. “They very much wanted to remove impediments in order to help people to execute.”

PHASE 4: Scaling up

In June 2023, those 10 projects can make another pitch to be selected into a pilot program where up to two projects will receive as much as $500,000. “We’re looking for things that would really sort of move the needle on any (Plan for Pitt) pillars,” Spears said.

They would get one to three years to demonstrate feasibility and an implementation plan to scale up the project to an institutional level. The teams would work with Melissa Schild and the Office of Strategic Planning and Performance, who developed the new Plan for Pitt, to think about how their project will integrate with the Plan for Pitt and the University’s strategic goals.

PHASE 5: Moving to the institutional level

Then one of those projects would be selected to transition to an institutional level and be included in the new budget model for ongoing funding, but the details of how that will work are still being developed.

“It’s about institutionalizing great ideas,” Spears said. “Right now, we don’t have a formal process by which we would say, ‘Hey, pay attention to this idea, because this is transformative, and we want to really make sure that everyone has access.”

Current seed projects

Of the 87 projects funded across four regular seed grant funding cycles since 2018 and a special cycle to address issues surrounding sexual assault, Spears said 74 to 76 remain active.

The projects were given blanket extensions because of the pandemic, since many ideas included travel and events that could not take place during the past year and a half.

She said 15 of the projects are nearly completed, but some will live on for two more years.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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