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Posted on Tue, Nov 27, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

U-M's MCubed program announcing research funding via Twitter

By Ben Freed


MCube founders from left: Mark Burns, chair of chemical engineering; Thomas Zurbuchen, associate dean for entrepreneurial programs at the College of Engineering; and Alec Gallimore, associate dean for research and graduate education at the College of Engineering.

Photo by Laura Rudich curtesy University of Michigan

A new University of Michigan micro-grant program called MCubed is promoting interdisciplinary research that its founders say could lead to new major research breakthroughs.

The program will announce its first funding recipients live on its website and twitter between 10 and 11 a.m. Wednesday morning.

U-M faculty have been encouraged by the program to create “cubes” of three primary investigators from different units within the university who will work together on new and innovative projects.

“Cubing” is a process dreamed up by the chair of chemical engineering Mark Burns that involves giving faculty funding “tokens” to invest in a single project. By utilizing the limited number of tokens each faculty receives to one, the projects originators believe they have eliminated the need for external review of the projects.

“All of us have already been extensively reviewed because we were all hired here [at the University of Michigan],” Burns said.

“The reason we felt strongly about having no external reviews is that with really innovative new projects, it’s often really hard to evaluate them… We thought the best people to evaluate the projects are the faculty involved. They have limited time and limited funds, so they won’t put their token on a project they don’t think will succeed.”

Burns worked with associate deans Thomas Zurbuchen and Alec Gallimore to bring the idea from the engineering school to the university at large.

The project is a collaboration between the provosts office and schools and departments across the university as part of the university’s “Third Century” initiative. A total of 750 funded “tokens” were distributed to faculty across campus. The tokens are worth $20,000 each for a combined value of $15 million.

The provost’s office is providing $5 million and individual schools and departments as well as the discretionary research funds of the faculty members participating are supplying the remaining $10 million.

“Each unit is able to dispense the tokens however they decide,” Burns said.

“Some units you have to apply for a token. In the engineering school, we gave a token to every single tenured and tenure track faculty member but we’re only going to end up funding 200 of them.”

When three researchers with tokens agree to collaborate on a project, their combined $60,000 in tokens can be used to hire an undergraduate, graduate, or post-doctoral student to assist with their research.

“This funding would really make a difference if we get it,” Dr. Robert Wessells said, who has a cube that wants to research the impact of exercise on fruit flies.

“It would help us get together enough work and enough results to apply for a big external grant that would support us more in the long term.”

Wessells is a doctor in the geriatric division of the medical school’s internal medicine department, his cube includes Dr. Kathleen Collins from the Liberal Arts and Sciences’ main campus molecular biology department and physiology assistant professor Dr. Jun-Hee Lee.

If they receive funding in the first round of the cube program, the team will be working to see how different genes in fruit flies react to exercise and which of them produce useful effects.

There were 229 projects submitted to the MCubed website for the first round of funding and 127 of them attracted the necessary three faculty members to form a cube.

Other projects submitted include researching ways to find dark matter using DNA strands, using drone technology to judge the age of bones in children with growth disorders, and a collaboration which would examine the effect of gas stovetops on lung health.

Burns said during the next two years he hopes to be able to fund all of the projects that make it to cube stage.

“We’re sort of hampered by our own success right now,” he said.

“The whole point of the program was going to be that if people have a new exciting idea they can get two other people to sign on and then just go and get their funding. What we’ve experienced instead is that all of our tokens have been disappearing very quickly right at the outset.”

Burns said the next step will be to raise more money so that the program can fund all of the interdisciplinary ideas that develop on campus.

The first 50 projects to receive funding will be selected “semi-randomly.” Beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, one project per minute will be announced online until all 50 slots have been taken. The selection will be random, but every school that submitted tokens will receive funding for at least one project.

The micro-funding paradigm has led to a “startup” boom-or-bust (and learn from it) attitude towards the research that will be sprouting up across campus.

“I know that some of these cubes will fail,” Burns said.

“But I’m sure that some of these cubes are going to win big too. And the ones that fail will learn from how their failed and why they failed and hopefully that learning experience will be good for everyone in the program.”

Burns said that the lack of prior external review will lead to research that looks at major fundamental questions in a way that would otherwise not have been funded at all. As with Wessells’ team, the initial funding could be leveraged into greater opportunities.

“As soon as they start working, they’re probably already applying for funding,” Burns said.

“With this funding it can help them show enough that they can get something published or have enough to show an external group like the National Institute of Health that they have something worth investing in.”

The public will be able to see funded cubes on the program’s website tomorrow. After the funded cubes are announced, another interaction phase will start that will culminate in another round of cube funding. Burns said he hopes to have all possible 250 cubes funded within six months.

The program is scheduled to end the initial $15 million of funding June 30, 2014. Burns hopes the program will continue funding cubes past the initial funding round and said eventually it could include student cubes as well.

Ben Freed covers business for You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


Ben Freed

Wed, Nov 28, 2012 : 4:27 p.m.

For clarification, Dr. Wessells' experimentation with fruit flies is meant to further understanding of how exercise can slow down the aging process. That information, properly gathered, could lead to the development of synthetic proteins that could mimic the effects in humans. Ben


Wed, Nov 28, 2012 : 1:41 a.m.

"All of us have already been extensively reviewed because we were all hired here [at the University of Michigan]," Burns said. This is a really great idea and deserves to be widely deployed. That's an excellent way to demonstrate trust in the hiring process and in the people. It can't be soon enough to do the same thing for undergrads. The U puts up such high hurdles for admission so why not trust that process as well?