By Nicole Casal Moore

Anyone with a big idea or a stubborn problem to solve can have a direct line to professors and researchers at the University of Michigan.

The university late last year opened to the public its popular MCubed seed funding program that jumpstarts daring projects and unusual collaborations. For a $75,000 investment, any person or organization can post an idea, problem or topic and put out a call to professors who want to work on it.

The move sets up a new Web-based platform that’s part crowdsourcing for ideas and part crowdfunding for support.

Families could enable unconventional research on a particular disease treatment or medical device, for example. Non-profits or corporations could pay for studies that examine challenges in their industries through unique lenses. Arts enthusiasts could perhaps kickstart projects on art preservation through digital media.

“Anybody in the world can suggest a research project, and I don’t know anywhere else where that’s possible. Of course, someone with a lot of money can start a foundation and fund projects through it, but with our program, people can have that kind of opportunity for a lot less,” said Mark Burns, T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering, professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, and chair of the MCubed executive committee.

The $14 million grassroots program began in 2012 as an effort to encourage the boundary-crossing work that often leads to breakthroughs, organizers say. MCubed also aims to fill a gap in support for outside-the-box projects in today’s harsh federal research funding environment, and to give professors more power to set their agendas.

“Innovative approaches to research help to keep our university vibrant,” Provost Martha Pollack said. “What we’re saying to the world with this next phase of MCubed is: Tell us what the biggest challenges are from your perspective and let’s see how we can address them together.”

A team of U-M researchers in the MCubed program are exploring the use of knitted textiles for the creation of composite structures in order to have greater control over their form and function, as well as improve the efficiency of their development.

In its first funding round, MCubed required no application and no formal review. Three qualifying researchers from at least two different disciplines simply had to agree to work on a brand new project and register online in order to rapidly receive $60,000. Each professor could only commit to one team, or “cube,” as the projects are called, leading to a form of peer review.

MCubed projects are pilot studies designed to pave the way for larger traditional grants. In its internal phase, 222 projects garnered more than $4 million in external funding.

“We ran the first phase based on our own ideas. Now we’re looking beyond for outside ideas to unleash our innovative power on. This is a funding process for mega-problems,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, special counsel to the provost on entrepreneurial education, and associate dean for entrepreneurial programs in the College of Engineering.

For the next funding round, all professors will receive one virtual token that they can contribute to one project. An outside contributor can post a project topic or problem online. All participating faculty will be notified about the opportunity. Professors with ideas and a desire to be involved can enter comments online.

Once there’s a match between a faculty member and the project, that faculty member becomes the owner of the project and the typical MCubed steps proceed. Two more researchers from at least one other discipline must join the cube before it can be funded.

Informally, this type of direct project funding was possible in the past, but it required larger dollar amounts and a lot of legwork. Individuals or corporations could work with the university’s development office to match them with an interested researcher, but it was difficult to cast a net as wide as MCubed will make possible.

“Our hope is that the public phase of MCubed will be at the forefront of a new model of public-private partnership,” said Mary O’Riordan, associate professor of microbiology and immunology and a member of the MCubed executive committee.

Federal funding regulations can often stymie innovation, O’Riordan said, and diminished federal research funding today is stalling it further.

“The private sector has a wealth of intellectual and financial resources, while we in the academic sector additionally have wonderful opportunities to collaborate in a way that might not be accessible in the industrial enterprise. So funding from industry or philanthropy will likely be an essential element of supporting and focusing innovation on important problems in the biomedical field and beyond,” she said.

Funding for the first phase of MCubed was provided by individual schools, colleges and units, investigators who participated in the program, and the Provost’s Office. MCubed is part of U-M’s Third Century Initiative, a $50 million, five-year plan to develop innovative, multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship.