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Funding Phenoms

For two professors, extraordinary grants.

Fred Mertz

JUST STARTING: Cui and McGehee

Oh, to be young, smart and funded. Suddenly, sensationally and stupendously well funded.

That pretty much describes Michael McGehee and Yi Cui. McGehee, associate professor of materials science and engineering, initiated the research proposal that won a $25 million grant from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is being built on the shore of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. Cui, an assistant professor in the same department, has a $10 million grant from KAUST.

McGehee, 35, and Cui, 32, are only in the early months of work that will be supported by the five-year grants. But such an extraordinary level of funding was immediately life-changing.

For McGehee, whose project involving solar cells is the impetus for the new Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics at Stanford, the cachet of the KAUST grant has led to even more funding. A dozen companies are signing on—at either $30,000 or $50,000 annually—for an industry affiliates program.

McGehee seems too mild-mannered and reflective to ever muster any public bravado. Nevertheless, he's keenly aware of being lifted above the typical scrambling for dollars. He's not getting the attention of a rock star, but he's a clean-tech star.

“The only reason I would ever want publicity is if it helps me to get good people and funding,” he says. “Now I have good people and funding.”

Cui's focus is on energy storage, and the potential results include the kind of benefit the average consumer can appreciate: better batteries for laptops, cell phones, iPods and other devices. He smiles more readily than McGehee and may be a little more animated, but he too seems to be utterly without swagger or affectation.

As best Cui can recall, he reacted to the news of the KAUST grant by going for a quiet walk so he could begin mentally organizing his plans. He's sure that the first person he called was his wife, and he remembers thinking, just because of the excitement in her voice, “that it sounded like she might be jumping in the air.”

McGehee's center will support research by 16 professors—12 at Stanford—and they'll have an array of new equipment at their disposal. Peter Peumans, assistant professor of electrical engineering, worked closely with McGehee in writing the KAUST proposal and is the center's deputy director. A six-person management team, which includes McGehee and Peumans, has been established as a way of sharing control and oversight.

The center's goal is highly focused: to develop more efficient solar cells (photovoltaic cells) by depositing liquid solutions of semiconductors on the part of the cells that usually is made with silicon semiconductors. Think of the process, McGehee says, “as painting instead of tiling” the cells. The work involves nanoscale technology and the ultimate goal is to “generate solar cells at a price competitive with coal-fired power plants.”

KAUST, scheduled for completion next year, is billed as an international, graduate-level research university accessible to men and women. It says all classes will be conducted in English, and the core disciplines will include industrial biotechnology, scientific computing, and energy and environment. The Los Angeles Times described the project as a signal of Saudi Arabia's pressing need for globalized education, but also as a political tinderbox because of its Westernized features.

The funding for McGehee and Cui is just a portion of the money being spent by KAUST to establish collaborative relationships around the world. Stanford is partnering with KAUST in other areas, such as helping to select faculty and organize parts of the curriculum.

“We've been assured there will be no restriction on academic or social freedom at the university,” McGehee says.

McGehee's obligations to KAUST are as a resource for collaboration; Cui will spend three weeks per year at KAUST.

Both bubble a bit as they look ahead. Cui, noting that his KAUST grant is “20 times a National Science Foundation grant,” says he has budgeted a large amount of money for equipment that other Stanford scientists will be able to utilize.

“It's really satisfying,” McGehee says, “to watch people coming together for this.”

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