How Mcubed is helping derisk research investments

Two precursors for innovation are the ability to take risks and move quickly, but conventional research funding doesn’t offer that flexibility.

Two precursors for innovation are the ability to take risks and move quickly, but conventional research funding doesn’t offer that flexibility. A six-year-old program has radically changed the way new studies get funded at Michigan, and it’s now expanding to enable long-term investment in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Together with Alec Gallimore, presently the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, and Thomas Zurbuchen, now an associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, ChE faculty member Mark Burns created Mcubed in 2012 to provide Michigan researchers with rapid funding—$15,000 or $60,000—so they could immediately start work.

Federal grants typically require a one- to two-year investment of time before money is ever awarded—if it’s ever awarded. Universities, too, tend toward relatively safe bets when funding faculty research internally. The seed funding program Mcubed has created a third path at Michigan, enabling researchers to receive small grants with no formal peer review—just an interdisciplinary collaboration.

The plan was to stimulate research teams—“cubes” of three professors, who represent at least two different disciplines—to pursue ideas that might otherwise be too risky to be worth proposing for a conventional grant.  The hope was that when faculty later applied for more substantial grants, their early research results made possible by this seed program would increase their chances of receiving funding for the next phase.

And it happened. The six-year investment of $30M by the University through Mcubed in 476 interdisciplinary projects has already translated into over $110 million from outside funding sources for faculty research. It has also led to more than 225 studies published in peer-reviewed journals, more than 60 additional products including companies, conference presentations, and websites, and 16 invention reports.

One team is discovering better ways to produce antibiotics

One such successful venture began with a $60,000 Mcubed grant to Nick Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Chemical Engineering, Angela Violi, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, and Scott VanEpps, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Michigan Medicine, to see if they could discover new methods to create more effective antibiotics.

The team recently received an additional $3,409,811 last fall from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to continue their project to develop nanoparticles as a basis for the next generation of antimicrobials.

“The funding we received from Mcubed jump-started our team and allowed us to obtain the first critical results. It gave us focus and inspiration simultaneously,” Kotov says.

“The project stemmed from the observation of a series of biomimetic properties of nanoparticles made at the University of Michigan and other places. The ‘crazy’ hypothesis was that one can engineer inorganic nanoparticles to semi-selectively interact with biological macromolecules. The early support for this hypothesis was initially found in shape-dependent inhibition of enzymatic activity by ZnO nanoparticles.”

Kotov says that the Mcubed funding made it possible for the team to transition from empirical testing of isolated cases to systematic engineering of the nanoparticles using molecular dynamics methods pioneered by Angela Violi. At the same time, Scott VanEpps showed that the idea of inorganic nanoparticles semi-selectively interacting with biological molecules can make an immense difference to the health of millions of people if we start looking at biofilms of bacteria.”

Most recently, Kotov, Violi, and VanEpps, and several other researchers from the University, received funding for a related study from the new Blue Sky initiative in the College of Engineering (CoE), a novel internal research funding approach at Michigan that’s based on a startup investment model and encourages “high-risk, high-reward ideas.”

This phase of the project, led by Angela Violi, will use machine learning, molecular simulations, and biological experiments to streamline the process of identifying promising nanoparticles and developing treatments with them to give doctors more options for treating patients in the future.

Mcubed’s next steps

Burns points out that Mcubed has proven far less risky than funding faculty members research individually. During the last five years, Mcubed has provided 1,500 researchers with seed money to start new research projects instead of making them go through the federal proposal process. When surveyed, 75 percent of faculty who received Mcubed money say their projects would have never been funded without this program.

“There is never a guarantee that any of the research will succeed,” says Burns, “but Mcubed is helping the University diversify by investing in many more faculty projects than the conventional funding of individual faculty.”

At last year’s Mcubed symposium, President Mark Schlissel announced that the third cycle of Mcubed will open for funding in fall 2018. In this next cycle, U-M-Flint will join U-M’s Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses in being eligible for grants. The program is starting to catch on across the country too: University of Virginia, Texas A&M, and Michigan State University have adopted similar programs—3 Cavaliers, T3, and WaterCube, respectively.

New funding options

In addition to the current cube seed funding, Mcubed is adding two more options for this new cycle, Clusters and Themes, to help faculty organize advanced research at Michigan.

The Clusters program encourages faculty to form teams of experts who have similar skills although they may be in different departments. Researchers will be able to learn from each other, share equipment and space, and hone techniques. For instance, faculty working on microfluidics devices might join together to form a collaborative space for their work. In the CoE, these new teams will automatically receive $2K to $10K to help the collaboration get up and running.

The Themes program will help faculty come together to expand research efforts to attack a particular problem. Again, they will form teams of researchers but this time their goal is to tackle a research challenge. For instance, engineers and medical researchers might wish to work on better methods to treat plaque buildup in the arteries of heart disease patients, or to find more effective methods of diagnosing pancreatic cancer. Again, CoE researchers automatically receive $2K to $10K in seed money to start on their research efforts.

The Mcubed Diamond program, created in 2014, permits alumni, industry, and foundations to be a part of Michigan’s $1.3 billion research enterprise by offering donors extraordinary access to direct U-M world-class researchers to study a particular area of interest.

Members of the public can post challenges that they would like researchers to pursue. Faculty members then suggest approaches to tackle the problem, and the outside contributor can help select the lead investigator for the project. After that, the project proceeds as an ordinary cube, and the donor may interact with faculty throughout the process. The entry-level gift is $75,000 for alumni and friends, and $80,000 for corporate sponsorships.

When Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and former U-M faculty member, was the keynote speaker at the Mcubed’s third symposium in November 2017, he said that the interdisciplinary work encouraged by Mcubed aligns with the kinds of projects that NIH is interested in funding. He added, “The rest of the world has also been looking at this as a particularly innovative and creative way to start collaborations quickly.”

If you would like more information on Mcubed, you can visit the website at