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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

NASA SpaceTech’s Michael LaPointe and John Nelson discuss the Center Innovation Fund and Early Career Initiative.

The Center Innovation Fund (CIF) stimulates and encourages creativity and innovation at NASA centers while addressing technology needs of NASA and the nation. CIF distributes annual funding to each NASA center to support the development of emerging technologies and foster new center initiatives.

The Early Career Initiative (ECI) is a unique and powerful opportunity for the best and brightest of NASA’s early career researchers to lead hands-on technology development projects. The initiative aims to invigorate NASA’s technological base and best practices by partnering early career NASA leaders with external innovators.

CIF and ECI are part of Early Stage Innovation and Partnerships in NASA’s Space Technology portfolio.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Technologies generated through CIF
  • ECI project highlights
  • Distinctions between CIF and ECI and other NASA initiatives


Related Resources

Center Innovation Fund

Early Career Initiative


Space Technology Mission Directorate

Commercial Lunar Payload Services

APPEL Courses:

Project Management Leadership Lab (3 Day) (APPEL-vPM-LAB3)

Team Leadership (APPEL-vTL)

Creativity and Innovation (APPEL-vC&I)

Project Management and Systems Engineering (APPEL-vPM&SE)


Michael LaPointe Photo Credit: NASA

Michael LaPointe
Photo Credit: NASA

Michael LaPointe is the NASA Headquarters Program Executive for the Center Innovation Fund (CIF), Early Career Initiative (ECI), and NASA innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. Prior to serving as Program Executive, LaPointe was NIAC Program Manager and the Deputy Program Executive for CIF and ECI. He began his NASA career at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 2004, managing research and development activities in high-power electric propulsion. LaPointe has been a branch chief and deputy division manager for MSFC science and technology organizations, most recently managing the Space Technology Development Branch before detailing to NASA HQ. Prior to joining NASA, he was a principal scientist at the Ohio Aerospace Institute, where he designed and operated a pulsed multi-MW electric propulsion facility to develop and test high-power plasma thrusters. LaPointe holds a bachelor’s degree in physics, master’s degrees in physics and in astrophysics, planetary and atmospheric sciences, and a doctorate in nuclear engineering. He is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a member of the AIAA Nuclear and Future Flight Propulsion Technical Committee.


John Nelson Photo Credit: NASA

John Nelson
Photo Credit: NASA

John Nelson is a Deputy Program Executive in the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters, specifically providing strategic and operational leadership for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), Center Innovation Fund (CIF), and Early Career Initiative (ECI). As part of STMD’s Early Stage Innovation and Partnerships portfolio, these programs empower a community of innovators in pioneering aerospace research and transformative technology ventures. Prior to joining NASA in 2022, Nelson worked in private industry for over 25 years, helping to ensure the success of science and technology programs across NASA and other agencies through sound strategic planning and portfolio management. This included 10 years of leading award-winning teams across STMD programs and initiatives. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Louisiana State University and his master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia.


John Nelson: NASA is certainly facing an aging workforce that has been rapidly retiring or nearing retirement, and it’s really encouraging to see the impact that this program specifically has had in developing the next generation of engineers.

Mike LaPointe: ECI actually started out as a subset of the Center Innovation Fund. But the goals of each are the same, which is basically provide the NASA workforce an opportunity to really stretch the limits and jump outside our usual day-to-day programs to look at new ways of doing things and think about new approaches that could really push the technology envelope to enable those future agency capabilities.

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned, and novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

The Center Innovation Fund and the Early Career Initiative are part of Early Stage Innovation and Partnerships in NASA’s Space Technology Portfolio.

Our conversation today is with NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, Center Innovation Fund, and Early Career Initiative Program Executive Michael LaPointe and Deputy Program Executive John Nelson. Thank you both for joining us on the podcast.

LaPointe: Oh, thanks Deana. It’s great to be with you this morning.

Nelson: It’s great to be here, Deana. Thank you.

Host: Sure. Let’s start with an overview of the Center Innovation Fund. Mike?

LaPointe: Thanks. So, the Center Innovation Fund, or CIF for shorthand, was started back in about 2011 to provide funding to the centers, including JPL, to conduct innovative research that could help the centers grow their capabilities and their workforce skills and address some of the key technology gaps that are being faced by NASA. Each year we fund about 120 to 130 projects through the Center Innovation Fund across all the centers, small dollar amounts at about a half FTE and about 50 to 100K in procurements per project.

It is a competitively funded program, so each year we put a call-out to the centers in the March timeframe. And then the center chief technologists at each of the centers conduct an internal center solicitation and review process. And then they propose back to us the projects that the centers would most like to see funded. And then following a series of reviews, we present the results to the Program Director for the Early-Stage Innovations and Partnerships program, which is Jenn Gustetic. Once she gives final approval, the centers are good to go on October 1 with their projects.

Host: John, would you give us a summary of the Early Career Initiative?

Nelson: Sure. The Early Career Initiative was started around 2015, I think we did a pilot. The purpose is to engage future NASA leaders in management and development of two-year projects. These are significant technology development projects that are about $2.5 million for two years, about 1.25 per year. For most of these folks, this will be their first opportunity to really direct a major technology development activity. The focus on ECI is not only the development of the technology, which is, of course, an important piece, but it’s the development of the future NASA workforce.

Similar to CIF, it’s open to the NASA centers. It is not open to JPL because the point is to develop NASA civil servant early career folks. So, JPL is excluded from eligibility, but the other nine centers do propose and we put out a solicitation once a year. We typically fund about five to six projects depending on budget availability. Again, these are two-year projects at about $2.5 million.

Host: Could you explain the connection between CIF and ECI?

LaPointe: Sure. Maybe I’ll start and let John hop in here too. Both of those are managed along with the NASA Advanced Concepts program through our joint program office that is within the Early Stage Innovations and Partnerships program and STMD, which is appropriate since each of those programs really is looking to advance new technologies for the agency. Actually, ECI actually started out as a subset of the Center Innovation Fund as an initiative to specifically provide those, as John mentioned earlier, career researchers with the opportunity to manage an asset technology development program.

But the goals of each are the same, which is basically provide the NASA workforce an opportunity to really stretch the limits and jump outside our usual day-to-day programs to look at new ways of doing things and think about new approaches that could really push the technology envelope to enable those future agency capabilities. John?

Nelson: No, I think that sums it up well. The only thing I’ll add is that after that initial pilot in 2015, ECI was so successful that since 2018 we’ve had an annual call. Again, it’s all managed within the CIF program.

Host: What distinctions are noticeable between the two initiatives and how do they differ from other NASA programs?

LaPointe: That’s a good question. Maybe I’ll take a quick cut and get John to fill in the details here too. I think the main distinctions are really the scope and the cost of the technology projects being developed and also the workforce we’re trying to reach.

Like John noted, the Early Career Initiative is focused on the NASA early career civil servants, give them that opportunity to propose and manage fairly substantial technology programs early in their career, give them that experience of dealing with their diverse team members or the external commercial and academic partners, dealing with development setbacks and delayed procurements, basically all the fun things that go along with managing a full-blown NASA program.

CIF is more focused on the shorter duration, one year lower cost activities, that really look across a number of different research areas and across all the centers to really identify those new ideas and approaches that our external partners can grow into our future capabilities.

Nelson: The only thing I’ll add to that is that they’re very complementary to each other, and together they form a program that is somewhat unique within STMD’s portfolio, in that it really focuses on early-stage innovation within NASA centers. It really, like Mike referenced, it gives people an opportunity to go beyond their day jobs, if you will, and really be innovative and introduce new thoughts, new concepts, new technology projects that hadn’t been pursued otherwise.

Host: What are some of the projects and technologies generated through the Center Innovation Fund?

LaPointe: There have been several pretty much across all the different NASA taxonomy areas. We recently looked at the numbers for a program review, and I think since about 2011, CIF has helped develop, find the numbers here, about 1,000 early stage concepts that have resulted in over 400 peer reviewed and conference publications, something like 300 NASA new technology reports, over 90 patents and patent pending applications, a dozen commercial licenses, at least two commercial spinoff companies.

So, for an early stage program it’s really had a pretty good return on investment in terms of knowledge capture and advancing capabilities. In terms of specific projects, each center has dozens of success stories that they could point to. I should probably also point out that since these are early stage projects, success often comes years later, as that original idea makes its way through various other projects and programs before it gets incorporated into a new technology or device. We don’t expect to see a CIF project funded this year suddenly transition into a project or a program. It can take several years and several paths through things like SBIR or even through ECI or NIAC before they become an actual project or technology. Some of them are developed and we realize that there are some flaws with them and they don’t go any further. But that in itself is a good knowledge capture.

In terms of examples for projects, one of the projects we had that we talked about quite a bit in the past was at Armstrong Flight Research Center back in 2014, they had a CIF to look at the types of systems that would be required for an all-electric aircraft, which eventually led to the Airvolt test stand out there. From there, it was picked up by a small business and they further developed that technology that eventually became the NASA X-57 aircraft, which was started under a CIF.

Back in 2018, the Marshall Space Flight Center developed a process for automating the assembly of thin film solar panels for additive manufacturing, and they received a patent just recently in 2021. And that has now been picked up by a CLPS provider, a Commercial Lunar Payload Services provider, to mature the approach and use it for their lunar missions.

Just running through a list here, JPL had a recent CIF project that developed a superconducting readout circuit for a single photon detectors for astrophysics missions. And that led to a collaboration with MIT and the National Institute of Science and Technology for a $5 million DARPA funding collaboration to develop large focal plane detector arrays. We can go on and on, and I probably should give John a chance to chat as well.

But as I mentioned, each center really can point to dozens of similar success stories over the years that we’ve done CIF, where these initial ideas get picked up and developed both within and external to NASA. I will point out that just for reference, the CIF project information, as well as ECI and NIAC is all uploaded to the publicly available NASA TechPort site, as well as the internal NASA SPAR database for folks that would like to do that, both of which are searchable by program and by keyword. With that, I’ll turn it over to John.

Nelson: Thanks, Mike. Yeah, those are excellent examples. In fact, those are some of the same examples I was thinking of, but I’ll point out two of the examples you gave are examples of fairly near-term transition and success. I mean, 2018 and 2019 projects that are already licensed or receiving additional significant funding for further development. So even though this is early stage stuff, we also do have some pretty immediate impacts, which is exciting to see.

LaPointe: Yep, good point.

Host: Let’s talk a little more about the Early Career Initiative. How do people get involved?

Nelson: As I think I mentioned earlier, we have an annual solicitation. Once a year we release a call to the centers and anyone at a center within the first 10 years of their career is encouraged to apply. The first step is to reach out to the folks at your center, specifically your center chief technologist, the Office of the Center Chief Technologist. Each center has one. They have an internal process where they will review the ECI proposals from that center, and then down-select to a number of proposals that are then submitted to Headquarters. And then we review across the centers.

Once the solicitation is out, we also have opportunities to engage directly with prospective proposers. We have Teams calls where we encourage people to call in and ask questions where we orient them to the program and help give general advice and feedback on how to propose. We try to make it as easy as possible, but we definitely encourage people to get involved.

Host: How does ECI benefit NASA?

Nelson: I think it’s two obvious fronts. The technology development itself is very important and it’s really significant work. The early career work that we’re seeing does tend to be very innovative and we definitely see significant impact, but perhaps the more important benefit is the people development. We require that the teams are primarily made up of early career investigators. It’s not just the PI. Often there’s a project manager, a PM alongside the PI that’s early career. Most of the lead positions are early career, typically.

We do have mentors from within centers, and we do require that they have an external partner typically in industry, but it doesn’t have to be. There are other folks involved to help mentor and guide the project that aren’t early career. But for the most part, these are teams of people all within the first 10 years of their career. We really are developing the next generation of NASA leaders. We like to say that and we really mean it. It’s really a core part of the program.

NASA is certainly facing an aging workforce that has been rapidly retiring or nearing retirement, and it’s really encouraging to see the impact that this program specifically has had in developing the next generation of engineers. We’ve already seen a lot of our folks go on to higher positions within their centers and really further their careers with the help of ECI.

LaPointe: Yeah, I think that’s a perfect answer, John. I think I totally agree that the main benefit is in advancing our early career workforce. The technologies are clearly important as well, as John mentioned. We do have the ECI PIs reach out to the STMD principal technologists and the system capability leads just to make sure that the technologies they’re proposing is of benefit and addresses a gap that NASA currently has. But I agree with John that advancing our early career workforce really is the key goal of ECI.

Host: What are some of the project highlights of ECI?

LaPointe: Well, similar to CIF, ECI has really done a terrific job of knowledge generation and capture. I think we currently have over like 100 papers and publications, more than two dozen NASA new technology reports that have come out of the technologies, three patents within another five that are pending. We’ve had some orbital flight demonstrations, three long duration material exposure flights on the ISS MISSE payloads and additional flights coming up. As John mentioned, ECI started with a pilot back in 2015 and became a full initiative back in 2018.

And with our recent awards that are set to begin in 2024, we funded a total of, I believe, 34 projects across the centers so far. Some of the recent ones, and John, I’ll have you jump in here too because my memory is not all that great, some of the more recently completed one is Jarvis out at Johnson Space Center, which was a joint augmented reality visual informatic system. And that was basically to develop a heads-up display within a suit helmet visor to assist the astronaut on their EVAs. They actually received an additional $2 million investment after ECI from what was then the HEOMD Advanced Exploration Systems Group to further develop the system, integrate it into the xEMU extravehicular suit. I should note that the PI for that also received a NASA Early Career Achievement medal. So, a very successful project.

We have one currently finishing up called ROAMX, which is a Rotor Optimization for the Advancement of Mars eXploration. That’s at NASA Ames, and they’re developing the next generation of rotors for future Mars helicopters. As we all know, Ingenuity has been a terrific success on Mars, but it’s very limited in capability and flight duration. They’re looking at how to advance the rotor systems on vehicles like Ingenuity that could make a travel kilometers instead of just a few hundred meters and carry substantial payloads as well. They’ve recently actually been asked to support the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopter program to advance the capabilities for that system. So, that’s been a very successful project for us.

Lunar Thermos, which is out at NASA Marshall, is a thermal regulation for emission sustainability for advancing heat pipe capabilities to help the lunar system survive the two-week-long lunar night, and their technology will actually be flying as a demonstration on an upcoming CLPS lander to keep the electronics alive. And as well, they’ll be flying on the NASA VIPER lunar rover mission in the not-too-distant future.

Just like CIF, the ECI project can point to a lot of successes that are not just spinoff technology as project infusions, but as John mentioned before, also in the education gained by the early career workforce in how they manage projects, teams, external partners and so forth as they grow into our next set of future agency leaders. John?

Nelson: No, Mike, I have nothing to add. That’s a fantastic list of examples. Again, Deana, you can see that these things are having immediate impact, whether they’re being incorporated into missions or being further developed. The technologies themselves are having great impact, which is great to see.

Host: That really gives us a good view of what’s currently happening with ECI and CIF.

LaPointe: Thanks, Deana. They’re exciting projects and programs. I mean, it’s just a really fun group of things to manage.

Host: What’s next with ECI and CIF?

LaPointe: So, both CIF and ECI, as you know, completed selections for ’24 and have started their projects on October 1. At the end of September, we gathered all the PIs at Headquarters and had a closeout and continuation review for our projects. Those, again, have started on October 1 for the continuations and our new projects have started on October 1 as well. One big change coming up for potential proposers that we can talk about in a little more detail is that we’re going to be moving the FY25 ECI solicitations up to November this year.

Typically, those have been released in March with proposals due in July and selections in August. Unfortunately, that didn’t leave a lot of time for the selected teams to really prepare for an October 1 start date or to negotiate contracts with their partners. We worked the budgets to allow us to release the solicitation earlier, much earlier, in November now, with the proposals due in March and selections in April. And that should provide enough time for the teams to get their training and initiate procurements. We’ll provide a small amount of upfront funding for those, and then also to allow the branch chiefs additional time to backfill the team members that we’ll be moving on to the two-year ECI projects.

A s I mentioned, one of the biggest challenges our ECI PIs faced was the time it took to get their partners under contract, because basically we would award them the funding in October and say, ‘Good luck. Get going,’ and it’d take them six months to get their partners under contract. And that was pretty untenable. This should allow the teams to really hit the ground running on or about October 1 anyway.

And then programmatically, we’re in the process of setting up a Level Two program office at NASA Langley to give us a program manager and a resource analyst to assist with the daily execution of the programs. John has been leading that activity for us that really better aligns with the STMD governance structure with the other Headquarter programs and following an open competition to host the office, Langley received the nod, so we’re currently working with them to set this up for a later FY24 start. John?

Nelson: Yeah, thanks, Mike. Yeah, not only are we looking forward to starting the L2 office just to help with execution and help things move a little more smoothly, we’re also hoping that it opens up opportunities for improvement and really incorporating lessons learned. For example, the changes that Mike had referenced for this year for ECI that we’ve made in response to feedback from former investigators. We’re really hoping that setting up this L2 will help us to really make these programs even stronger than they already are.

Host: Mike and John, this has really been interesting. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us about it today.

LaPointe: We appreciate the time, Deana. Thank you. Thank you for your interest.

Nelson: And thank you for the opportunity to let us talk about these programs. As you can tell, we’re really passionate about them. We think they’re very significant and worthy investments, and we’re just glad to talk about them.

Host: You’ll find Mike and John’s bios on our website at along with links to information about how to apply to CIF and ECI, and other topics discussed during our conversation as well as a show transcript.

If you like the podcast, please follow us on your favorite podcast app and share the episode with your friends and colleagues.

As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.