Home  /  It Pays to Be Early: Jump-Starting Promising Ideas Can Lead to Big Impact

It Pays to Be Early: Jump-Starting Promising Ideas Can Lead to Big Impact

The Trimble Foundation helps Caltech faculty and students jump-start innovative research with the potential to make a positive difference for science and society.

Since its inception in 1996, the Trimble Fund has spurred insights and inventions by seeding early-stage research projects across campus. This type of support, an essential complement to federal research grants, exemplifies Caltech's distinctive approach to discovery: It enables investigators to take smart risks and act immediately on their most promising ideas. Now, thanks to a new $8 million gift from the Trimble Foundation that augments what was already a multi-million-dollar endowed fund, many more researchers will have resources to explore bold new lines of inquiry.

"Charlie and Gordon Trimble deeply appreciate the impact of unfettered funds in generating unanticipated discoveries," says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "We are grateful for their extraordinary new gift that expands the scope and impact of the Trimble Fund, seeding ambitious projects across the Institute."

According to Gordon Trimble, a former Hawaii State senator and president of the Trimble Foundation, "The Trimble Fund nurtures creative thinking by helping scientists and engineers kindle promising ideas in their earliest stages. We are investing in Caltech graduate students and professors because they generate sparks of inspiration and discoveries that can serve science and society in powerful ways."

Getting Good Ideas Off the Ground

Earlier this year, the Trimble Fund supported a collaboration between two professors in Caltech's Merkin Institute for Translational Research who have joined forces to improve broadly neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers in the laboratory of Stephen Mayo, Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry and a Merkin Institute Professor, have devised computational protein-design software to replace traditional protein engineering methodologies. At the same time, Pamela Bjorkman, the David Baltimore Professor of Biology and Bioengineering and a Merkin Institute Professor, and her team employ state-of-the-art in vitro neutralization assays to measure the inhibitory effects of the antibody variants identified by Mayo's lab. The goal is to pave the way for more effective, less expensive monoclonal antibody therapeutics to curb the impact of contagious viruses.

In 2021, the Trimble Fund provided Azita Emami, the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and director of Caltech's Center for Sensing to Intelligence, and Anima Anandkumar, a Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, with a springboard for the development of a device that combines sensor technology with artificial intelligence to detect cardiac arrhythmias. The fund also supported research in the lab of biology professor Lea Goentoro, where investigators are analyzing molecular pathways that could make it possible for organisms to regrow organs. The findings could point to new approaches for regenerative medicine.

Other scientists and engineers across divisions have received a boost from the Trimble Fund. In addition to accelerating biomedical advancements, the fund recently kick-started a new line of investigation for Joe Parker, assistant professor of biological engineering. This project uses the comparative genomics of symbiotic rove beetles to identify candidate genes and genomic features underlying the behaviorally complex relationships these beetles have evolved with social insects. Together with geobiology professor Woody Fischer, Parker leads Caltech's cross-disciplinary Center for Evolutionary Science (CES), which focuses on evolutionary processes in the natural world stemming from biotic as well as anthropogenic forces. The Trimble Fund was integral to the establishment of CES in 2019 and, over the past three years, has seeded diverse research initiatives in fields ranging from evolutionary neuroscience to bioinformatics.

The Trimble Fund also provided foundational support for the joint work of Tapio Schneider, Caltech's Theodore Y. Wu Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and a senior research scientist at JPL, and Andrew Stuart, a Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, with the Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA). A consortium of researchers led by Caltech in partnership with MIT and JPL (which Caltech manages for NASA), CliMA aims to build a new Earth system model that will provide the accurate and actionable scientific information society needs to mitigate and adapt to climate changes.

Even further afield, the fund has provided resources for astronomers, geologists, and planetary scientists in the new Caltech Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution, aiding the hunt for Earth-like worlds and furthering the quest to understand the origin of life on this planet and the search for life elsewhere.

A Proven Approach

"The Trimble Fund comes in before proof of concept," explains Gordon's brother, Charles "Charlie" Trimble (BS '63, MS '64), who serves as vice president of the Trimble Foundation. The founder and former chief executive officer of Trimble Navigation, Ltd., Charlie Trimble is a Caltech senior trustee, winner of the 2016 International von Kármán Wings Award, and a 1995 Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award honoree. "Researchers share ideas with fellow faculty members, and they decide which ones get seed funding—no red tape. This peer-review model for administering funds has been proven to work at Caltech."

He points to pilot grants awarded by the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions to fuel high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary work in areas ranging from methane sequestration to probiotics that sense and regulate inflammation, and the Carver Mead New Adventures Fund, which champions exceptional, cutting-edge ideas that are too new to garner federal funding or private investment.

"Several projects grubstaked with something around $50,000 from various endowed funds have shown tremendous potential and gone on to attract much, much more support from industry and government," he adds.

Gordon Trimble sums up: "The Trimble Foundation gives others a leg up when they lack the resources to reach their full potential. We are supporting Caltech researchers who need financial backing to get their good ideas off the ground. And some of those good ideas invariably will lead to breakthroughs that expand scientific knowledge and improve the lives of people around the world."