"The NIAC was formed for the explicit purpose of being an independent source of revolutionary aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its mission. The Institute is to provide highly visible, recognized and high-level entry point for outside thinkers and researchers." from here
Basically, they fund projects that sound as if they are ripped from the pages of the latest space sci fi novel. Past grantees have included the space elevator - no need for shuttles, just catch the elevator! Also, a revamp on the traditional spacesuit - looks like they are finally working on the girlie fit version.