Innovation on display at MCubed demo day Nov. 15


More than 200 pilot projects born of bold ideas and unlikely collaborations will be on display next Friday at a symposium to mark the first funding anniversary of MCubed, the university’s one-of-a-kind seed grant experiment.

Organizers say the event, which is expected to draw nearly 1,000 people, could be one of the largest gatherings on innovation in U-M’s history.

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Since last November, the $14 million MCubed program has given $60,000 seed grants to 222 interdisciplinary trios of qualifying researchers — and that’s with no questions asked and no formal review. To receive funding, three researchers from at least two different disciplines simply had to agree to work together on a project and post it on the program’s website. Each researcher could commit to only one project.

On Nov. 15 at The Case for the Cube symposium, preliminary results or plans from all projects will be presented.

Giving the keynote address will be Tony Fadell, a College of Engineering alumnus who is one of the iPod’s inventors and the founder and CEO of Nest Labs, a Silicon Valley startup developing smart thermostats that promote energy efficiency, and advanced smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

The event will include nine 10-minute TED-like talks from selected “cubes,” as the research teams are called, and 35 short talks in concurrent sessions as well as poster presentations.

“Interdisciplinary cooperation has long been a hallmark of the U-M research community, and MCubed builds on that core strength,” said Stephen Forrest, vice president for research. “This symposium will highlight the exceptional creativity that has emerged by actively encouraging collaborations across campus through this program.”

In the cube called The Holy Braille, for example, a jazz percussionist is working with engineers to make a better Braille computer display. The team will present in an afternoon concurrent session.

A presentation titled Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible will feature professors in physics, music and art demonstrating a multimedia production exploring the mystery of dark energy. And in Oral HPV, Sex and Cancer: The Bridge from Math to Medicine, public health researchers and a medical doctor are investigating possible connections between oral and cervical human papilloma virus, which is known to cause cervical cancer. The latter two presentations are among the TED-like talks.

All the university’s schools, colleges and other academic units are participating in the grassroots MCubed program, which was spearheaded by three engineering professors and is run today by an executive committee of faculty.

The two-year pilot program is designed to be an antidote to several aspects of the traditional research funding process, executive committee members say. It skips over the review process, which can stifle innovation. It requires new and different collaborations, which typical funders can view as untested, rather than exciting. And it transfers money within weeks rather than months or longer. Fast funding can be an advantage in today’s rapidly changing research environment.

Already, the program is succeeding on several fronts. More than 70 percent of MCubed participants report that they’re working with at least one new collaborator. And MCubed projects have been rolled into more than $4 million in external grants from places like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Ninety percent of MCubed teams have submitted an external grant proposal based on related work or they plan to do so within one year of the close of the funding period.

“MCubed is transforming the institutional culture of the University of Michigan,” said Valerie Johnson, the program’s managing director. “We regularly receive inquiries from faculty members still hoping to form cubes, and hear stories of faculty who went on to forge other kinds of collaborations because MCubed connected them. Although multidisciplinary research and scholarship is complex work, faculty tell us that learning to speak one another’s disciplinary languages is well worth the effort.”

The symposium will draw students as well as faculty. Each cube has at least one and in most cases several graduate students, undergraduates or postdocs working on the project. The program’s interdisciplinary nature is geared toward expanding their horizons as well.

“We all are educated in our domains. We select a major, a master’s focus, a Ph.D. topic and we drill down. Especially at the Ph.D. level, it’s all about enhancing the depth of our understanding. But when we do that we lose breadth, which is important to addressing big problems in society — big issues or questions that have puzzled people for years,” said Elizabeth Moje, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education, an associate dean in the School of Education and a member of the MCubed executive committee.

“MCubed not only brings faculty together, but it’s also an opportunity to bring graduate students and undergraduate students to the table to begin to learn one another’s languages.”

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


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