Michigan Engineering News

U-M president at podium

Rapid research funding experiment triples its money

‘MCubed’ will continue for another three-year cycle.

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, speaks to media at the 2017 MCubed Symposium: Hail to the Cube – Michigan’s Legacy to Uncommon Innovation at the Rackham Auditorium on central campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI on Wednesday, November 1, 2017.

A five-year, $30 million investment into bold research and scholarship from the University of Michigan and its faculty members has tripled into a return of nearly $100 million in follow-on funding.

The one-of-a-kind Mcubed program—spearheaded by engineering professors in 2012—is designed to spark innovative projects without traditional review. It rapidly gives seed funding—either at a $60,000 or $15,000 level—with no questions asked to teams of three professors who represent at least two different disciplines. MCubed shortcuts the conventional grant review process that faculty members say slows progress and can prove too big a hurdle for a new team with a big idea to clear.

MCubed has sparked

  • 476 projects
  • $94 million in follow-on funding
  • 225 published studies

At the initiative’s 2017 symposium today, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced that MCubed would continue for another three-year cycle—its third since launching in 2012. In this next cycle, UM-Flint will join U-M in Ann Arbor and UM-Dearborn.

“There is no shortage of creativity among our faculty, and MCubed helps to unleash their ambition more quickly across all disciplines,” Schlissel said. “As a 200-year-old public university with outstanding academic breadth, we have the potential to be so much more than the sum of our many excellent parts. We need our best artists, humanists, scientists, teachers and others to pursue knowledge that will change society for the better.”

It’s very hard to judge new and creative work. I think that bears out in our traditional funding system.

mark burns

Mcubed executive director

In each cycle of MCubed, the U-M Provost’s Office contributes $5 million. This funding stimulates investments by colleges, schools or departments, and participating faculty members that has historically totaled an additional $10 million.

Since the program began, it has jumpstarted:

  • 476 interdisciplinary projects
  • $90 million in external grants and $4 million in internal funding so far. MCubed’s second cycle doesn’t end until the end of December.
  • More than 225 studies published in peer-reviewed journals
  • More than 60 additional products including companies, conference presentations, websites, artistic exhibitions and community outreach
  • 16 invention reports

MCubed has also involved 1,553 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, all of whom have been trained to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Mcubed was conceived and implemented by a group of innovative faculty leaders including: Mark Burns, who is now executive director of MCubed and Research Innovation in the U-M Office of Research, as well as the T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering; Alec D. Gallimore, who is now the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor both of aerospace engineering and of applied physics; and Thomas Zurbuchen, a former associate dean and aerospace engineering professor who is now associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

To put it in place, they had to convince all of U-M’s 19 schools and colleges to participate. That wasn’t easy considering that a cornerstone of the program was the lack of a formal review process.

“At first some deans said, ‘Can’t we just judge the projects?’” Burns recalls. “But how can you tell which ones will succeed and which ones won’t? It’s very hard to judge new and creative work, and I think that bears out in our traditional funding system. If your work hits on a new topic, half of your reviewees might say, “No, we don’t believe this can be done, and the other half might say, “Excellent! This is new!” but you don’t get the funding.

“We started Mcubed so we could give truly innovative research a jumpstart.”

Here are some examples of projects and successes.

Predicting patient risk of developing c. difficile infection

MCubed catalyzed what’s now a $9 million, National Institutes of Health project using data science to predict patients’ risks of developing hospital-borne Clostridium difficile infections. C. difficile is usually kept out of the gut by the normal bacteria we harbor. However, antibiotics can wreak collateral damage on these normal bacterial, leaving patients susceptible to C. difficile, which can exist in hospitals. Once acquired, this difficult-to-treat infection can cause serious damage to the colon.

Internal medicine and infectious disease physician Vincent Young, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Jenna Wiens, and Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Evan Snitkin had been considering submitting a proposal to NIH when they formed their Mcubed project. They used the seed funding to demonstrate that their team had a history.

“Mcubed was the spark that made it happen,” said Young, who is the William Henry Fitzbutler Collegiate Professor of Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease as well as a professor of microbiology and immunology at the U-M Medical School. “Whenever the NIH considers you, they want to see where you’re at, and we could show that we’d started to do work. We had hired someone to look at the data already. They liked that. It really gave us a head start.”

Environmental and health effects of hydraulic fracturing

A six-member “supercube” of engineers, a hydrogeologist and a sustainable systems scientist got together in the first MCubed cycle to study hydraulic fracturing, water contamination and the fate of the fracking fluids that are used in the process. At the time, these U-M faculty were some of the first to examine the environmental and public health effects of this widespread approach to natural gas extraction.

Brian Ellis, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, was a new faculty member. “I arrived on campus and had some initial conversations with potential collaborators and Mcubed provided immediate funding to jump after our ideas,” Ellis said. “A lot of times you have conversations with colleagues and say, ‘we should go after this,’ but the time and effort required to put a full proposal together doesn’t match up with your available time.”

The funding led to new research directions, a $300,000 grant from NSF and several research papers. Most recently, collaborator Shelie Miller, an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability’s, published findings showing that electricity produced from fracked natural gas has much lower public health impacts than electricity produced from coal.

These are just two of hundreds of projects engineering faculty members and students are involved in.

“We’ve seen an incredible amount of pent up creative energy released into results,” said Mcubed managing director Valerie Johnson. “For faculty, this program is allowing them to return to the love of discovery that drove them to their field in the first place.”

The third cycle of MCubed will open for funding in fall 2018.