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UTEP Wins Inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines Award for up to $15M Over Two Years

With the potential to receive up to $160M over 10 years, the Paso del Norte Engine seeks to grow the region’s aerospace, defense manufacturing through infrastructure and talent development

EL PASO, Texas (Jan. 29, 2024) – The U.S. National Science Foundation today announced that El Paso and The University of Texas at El Paso is one of the 10 inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines (NSF Engines) awardees. The Paso del Norte Engine will initially receive up to $15 million for the next two years.

NSF Engines Inaugural Award
The U.S. National Science Foundation today announced that El Paso and The University of Texas at El Paso is one of the 10 inaugural NSF Regional Innovation Engines awardees. The Paso del Norte Engine will initially receive up to $15 million for the next two years.

The funds will support the Paso del Norte Defense and Aerospace Innovation Engine (Paso del Norte Engine). The Paso del Norte Engine hopes to combine innovative concepts with the emerging field of digital engineering and others to help small and medium manufacturers compete in the aerospace and defense markets. This will include erecting public infrastructure, such as a product and process improvement facility, to reduce costs for startups and manufacturers while increasing access to the cutting-edge design and testing tools.

“The inaugural NSF Engines awards demonstrate our enduring commitment to create opportunity everywhere and enable innovation anywhere,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Through these NSF Engines, NSF aims to expand the frontiers of technology and innovation and spur economic growth across the nation through unprecedented investments in people and partnerships. NSF Engines hold significant promise to elevate and transform entire geographic regions into world-leading hubs of innovation.” 

With a potential NSF investment of nearly $1.6 billion over the next decade, the 10 regional NSF Engines represent one of the single largest investments in place-based research and economic development in the nation's history — uniquely placing science and technology leadership as the central driver for regional economic competitiveness and job creation. 

“We are grateful for the NSF investment that builds on a regional strength,” said UTEP President Heather Wilson. “We look forward to working with our partners on this important effort.”

“Small and medium manufacturers remain extraordinarily critical to maintaining a vibrant and secure U.S. aerospace and defense supply chain, but fewer and fewer are participating in the defense industrial base. With a smaller workforce, limited resources, and non-existent research and development infrastructure and budget, these manufacturers are virtually excluded from the highly stratified U.S. innovation ecosystem,” said Paso del Norte Engine principal investigator Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., the UTEP associate vice president who leads the Aerospace Center. “This investment by the NSF will unlock the potential of these manufacturers by democratizing access to innovation.”

Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., director and founder of UTEP’s W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, and Paso del Norte Engine co-principal investigator said, “We look forward to doing our part to drive innovation in our region by leveraging our over two-decade investment in additive manufacturing research. This research not only drives innovation but also supports the effective use of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, throughout the Paso del Norte Engine to bolster the aerospace and defense supply chain. We want this supply chain to grow and thrive in our region and the NSF investment provides the necessary support and infrastructure to do just that.”

The Paso del Norte Engine builds on a decade-long collaboration between UTEP and the County of El Paso, the City of El Paso, Workforce Solutions Borderplex, the Rio Grande Council of Governments, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), the El Paso Chamber, and newest members, El Paso Community College (EPCC) and Spaceport America.

“Today’s announcement proves that if you dream big and work hard, anything is possible,” said Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (TX-16). “Thanks to Dr. Ahsan Choudhuri’s innovative vision and strategic partnerships, the National Science Foundation’s investment in our region will help us exponentially and rapidly advance El Paso’s newest economic engine. As the only federal elected official in the region to vote for the Chips and Science Act, I'm so proud that this funding will continue to advance critical technology development, stimulate economic growth and job creation, and will counter the ‘brain drain’ our community continues to grapple with.”

Teams that demonstrate progress toward well-defined milestones could potentially receive up to $160 million each from NSF over 10 years as they seek to catalyze the NSF funding to draw additional investments into the overall region.

Today’s announcement delivers on the bipartisan priorities outlined in the "CHIPS and Science Act of 2022," which authorized the NSF Engines program with a focus on market-driven research and development, innovation, translation, and workforce development.  

William Serrata, Ph.D., president of EPCC, said, “The Paso del Norte Engine will create pathways to great jobs for residents of the Paso del Norte region, regardless of their educational background or current salary.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said, “The NSF’s investment to build a product and process improvement facility will be a new innovation asset at the Advanced Manufacturing District, which is located at the El Paso International Airport. This facility will be a place where manufacturers can go to get support to mature products for market and make production lines more productive. This grant award is the result of a great partnership and collaboration among stakeholders in our region. Today is a great day for El Paso.”

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego stated, "The NSF Award to build the Industry Commons at the Tech1 Campus serves as a testament to the remarkable progress achieved at the Faben Airport, reinforcing our collective commitment to growth and innovation. With nearly $25 million in other immediate planned investments, we are building on a solid foundation of success, positioning the region for a thriving future."

Vice President and Chief Development Officer of NCDMM Randy Gilmore, said, “UTEP’s two centers’ research preeminence and unparalleled capabilities in developing the talent that is needed by industry makes the Paso del Norte Region the right partner for reclaiming America’s dominance in aerospace and defense manufacturing.”

Spaceport America Executive Director Scott McLaughlin said, “As the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, we were created by New Mexico tax payers for these kinds of regional opportunities. We are excited that funding for this public innovation infrastructure will help the regional economy and firms gain access to the site, whether they are conducting rocket engine tests, aviation and UAV flights, or actual rocket flights."

Leila Melendez, president and CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, added, “This program is designed to remove barriers to training and education so that that anyone in the community will have access to these great jobs.”

Learn more about the Paso del Norte Engine at:

About The University of Texas at El Paso

The University of Texas at El Paso is America’s leading Hispanic-serving university. Located at the westernmost tip of Texas, where three states and two countries converge along the Rio Grande, 84% of our 24,000 students are Hispanic, and more than half are the first in their families to go to college. UTEP offers 172 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs at the only open-access, top-tier research university in America.

About NSF Engines

Launched by the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships in May 2022, the NSF Engines program uniquely harnesses the nation's science and technology research, development enterprise and regional-level resources. For more information, visit the NSF Engines program website. 

Last Updated on January 29, 2024 at 9:00 AM | Originally published January 29, 2024

By MC Staff UTEP Marketing and Communications