What is NEI’s challenge?

NEI’s 3D Retina Organoid Challenge (3D ROC) aims to generate a 3-D human retina culture system that recapitulates the complexity, organization, and function of the human retina. Technological breakthroughs could allow researchers and physicians to better understand, diagnose, and treat retinal diseases. 3DROC is asking for publication quality data showing development of prototypes.

Final Deadline: October 1, 2020

  • Open to any participants, not just part 1 winners
  • Expected to have multiple milestones over the course of ~3 years
  • $1M planned in total prizes; multiple winners possible

What is a prize competition?

A prize competition, or challenge, is a competition in which a prize is offered to a winning participant(s) whose solution meets the award criteria. Success depends on meeting the challenge’s defined scientific goals. The America COMPETES Act is the original prize authority. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act updated this federal prize competition authority in December of 2016 under the Science Prize Competition Act. In addition to stimulating innovation that has the potential to advance the agency’s mission, these pieces of legislation encourage public-private partnerships and commercialization of final products.

What are some advantages to using the prize competition mechanism?

Prize competitions fund disruptive, paradigm shifting, groundbreaking, innovative ideas without requiring preliminary data,  stimulate excitement about a need/opportunity, allow the agency to seek an accomplishment without pre-selecting an approach or team, provide flexibility for agencies to partner with private sponsors, allow participants at any career stage and from non-academic research institutes to compete, encourage cross-discipline collaboration and creative solutions to problems, and promote commercialization of products to enable broad use by the research community.

I am not a US citizen or permanent resident. Can I still participate in the challenge?

Non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent U.S. residents are not eligible to win a prize (in whole or in part) under the America COMPETES Act. NIH generally permits non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent U.S. residents to register for and participate in NIH Challenges. Such individuals may, for example, participate as part of a team that satisfies the applicable eligibility criteria and may be recognized when the results are announced, but they are not permitted to receive any monetary prizes.

Here is the official language regarding eligibility (which can be found on our Challenge Details page):

Each team must designate a captain who must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is responsible for all correspondence regarding this Challenge.

To be eligible to win a prize under this challenge, an individual or entity—

  • In the case of a private entity, shall be incorporated in and maintain a primary place of business in the United States, and in the case of an individual, whether participating singly or in a group, shall be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. However, non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent residents can participate as a member of a team that otherwise satisfies the eligibility criteria. Non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent residents are not eligible to win a monetary prize (in whole or in part). Their participation as part of a winning team, if applicable, may be recognized when the results are announced.

How can I fund the work to participate in this challenge without using federal grants?

As required by the America COMPETES Act, the Challenge announcement states “Federal grantees may not use Federal funds to develop their Challenge submissions…” Therefore, alternative funding must be used to do the work.

Alternative Strategies for Funding Challenge Work

Your best chance to satisfy the scientific criteria we have planned for this challenge is to work as teams and combine expertise from many different scientific areas.Forming teams will allow participants to bring together resources and diverse knowledge, which will increase each team’s chance for success. 

Some ideas for alternate funding sources include using development money from your institution, starting a crowdfunding campaign, and applying for grants from non-federal organizations with similar goals and missions.

As an additional means of support for registered challenge participants, NEI has formed partnerships with companies. Company sponsors have agreed to provide discounts on products, reagents, and services, or in-kind consulting, expertise, or access to equipment. 

How are the submission review and winner selection processes structured?

All submissions will be reviewed by both a technical advisory panel and group of federal judges. The technical panel will evaluate prize competition entries and, via summary statements and suggested rankings, will provide technical advice to the judges. The federal judges will also evaluate the submissions, and will consider the technical advice provided by the technical reviewers. Winners will be selected by the federal judges.

Who are the technical advisory panelists and federal judges?

The technical advisory panel is made up of individuals with cross-disciplinary expertise that will be necessary to best evaluate the submissions. Several advisory panel members have direct experience in the fields of ophthalmology, retinal biology, drug screening, and toxicology. Others have expertise related to technical aspects of the challenge requirements, such as functional validation. The names of the technical advisory panel members will be posted upon confirmation of their participation.

The federal judges have a range of expertise related to the challenge topic, in areas such as organoid and multi-organ systems development, stem cell biology, retina organoid biology, bioengineering, and nervous system development.

NEI reserves the right to add members to the technical and judging panels upon receipt of proposals, if additional expertise is needed. 

Technical Advisory Panelists

Lucas Chase, PhD
Therapeutics/FUJIFILM - Cellular Dynamics, Inc. 

Philip Hewitt, PhD
Head of Early Investigative Toxicology, Merck Healthcare KGaA

Marion Jeanne, PhD
Scientist & Lab Head, Ophthalmology Discovery, Neuroscience Department, Genentech Inc. 

Mark Kennedy, PhD
Staff Scientist (R&D), Thermo Fisher Scientific

Stefan Kustermann, PhD
Group Leader Investigative Safety, Roche

J. Arjuna Ratnayaka, BSc, MPhil, DIC, PhD
Lecturer in Vision Sciences at the University of Southampton

Karl Wahlin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at UC San Diego Director, Richard C. Atkinson Laboratory for Regenerative Ophthalmology

Günther Zech, PhD
Head of Neurophysics, NMI Natural & Medical Sciences Institute at the University of Tuebingen

Federal Judges

Ethan Cohen, PhD
Research Investigator, FDA

Mala Dutta, PhD
Technology Development Coordinator, NEI

Robert Hufnagel, PhD
Chief, Medical Genetics and Ophthalmic Genomics Unit, NEI

Paek Lee, PhD
Program Officer, Small Business SBIR/STTR, NEI

Tiansen Li, PhD
Senior Investigator, Retinal Cell Biology & Degeneration Section, NEI

Wei Li, PhD
Senior Investigator, Retinal Neurophysiology Section, NEI

Sam Michael, PhD
Chief Information Officer & Director, Automation & Compound Management, NCATS

Charles Wright, PhD
Science Policy Analyst, NEI

Steven M Zehnder, PhD
Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, & Transport Systems - Directorate for Engineering, NSF

Can I be part of multiple teams?

NEI will allow each solver to be a team lead on one proposal and a team member on one other proposal. Therefore, each solver may be involved in 2 proposals total.

What heading information should I provide in my proposal?

Please provide the team lead’s name and affiliation, indicate whether you are competing in the drug testing or disease modeling category, and indicate if you are applying for the trainee category.

I have many members on my team; can my biographical sketch exceed 2 pages? What should be included in my biographical sketch?

No; the biosketch for all team members is limited to two pages, regardless of team size. The biosketch can be used in combination with the feasibility section to show that your team has the expertise to carry out the proposed protocol. For each team member, we suggest including only highly relevant publication(s) (e.g., the most recent or the one that specifically defines a particular method), a very brief summary of expertise, any accomplishments that are directly relevant to the team members’ abilities to carry out their proposed roles, and any other directly relevant information. 

I am applying to the trainee category; what are the recommended lengths for each section of the proposal?

While we expect the comprehensive description of the proposed solution will require 6 pages, the feasibility and biographical sketch sections should be reduced to 1 page each.

How do I register for this challenge?

Submissions for the 3D ROC challenge are being accepted via email at neiorm@nei.nih.gov.

When should teams form? Should teams be announced, and what is NEI’s level of involvement with the teams?

NEI wants the team formation aspect of the challenge to be flexible and of maximum benefit to each team (i.e., assemble your teams as needed to push the science forward and try to win the award). If you are proposing to incorporate ideas/technology outside your area of expertise, you and the team members with the expertise should agree to work together in advance of submitting the proposal, so that the team members and their expertise can be presented in the “feasibility” section (see the application template). Each team member is welcome to register on challenge.gov, but no announcement is required. You can indicate your team members in the feasibility section of the proposal. Teams can also form, add members, divide, or merge at any point during the competition.

Any agreements between participants who decide to collaborate are at the discretion of those involved. NEI is not overseeing collaborations, and each team is responsible for its own assembly and disassembly. NEI simply wants to maximize the flexibility for all participants, in order to have the best chance of achieving the solution (i.e., a functional, physiological 3D human retina organoid). For example, if a non-winning team finds that it is not feasible to move forward without winning some seed money from the proposal, and the team disassembles, we encourage those with expertise and interest to pursue other teams.

Does NEI play any role in determining team members’ effort/work contributions or potential award allocation?

Prizes will be awarded directly to the team lead of the winning team, so award allocation is not applicable. All members of winning team(s) will be announced and recognized by NEI. Although we have not worked out details, at minimum, winning team members will be listed on the NEI website. There is a possibility that we could also list contributions or areas of expertise. 

Are preliminary data required for the concept proposals that are due August 1?

Preliminary data are NOT required, but can be added as a supplement. The judges may or may not consider supplemental material. If you add preliminary data to your 6-page idea section of your proposal, including the other information requested under submission requirements (see Application Template) is important.

How rigid is NEI’s definition of “organoid”? Can complex multi-layered, multicellular systems be considered organoids?

Our definition of organoid can be flexible, as long as the final tissue is human, 3D, properly oriented, and meets the other morphological and physiological evaluation criteria requirements outlined in the challenge announcement. Ultimately, the organoid systems that most closely meet these criteria will win the challenge. Creativity, for instance using perfusion and other engineering techniques, is encouraged to enhance organoid systems, but as noted in the evaluation criteria, “tissue on chip” approaches that do not reflect the complexity and fully represent the physiology, structure, and function are outside the scope of this challenge. Explants are also outside the scope of the challenge.

If I have a manuscript in the press or am currently writing one, can I submit for this competition?


Am I able to submit for this competition if I have a pending grant application?


Last updated: November 25, 2020