August 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

More Michigan colleges use crowdfunding for research

Crowdfunding is being used to back Michigan State professor Richard Neubig's scleroderma research. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Linda Wittbrodt was perusing Michigan Technological University’s website when she stumbled across a faculty project seeking funds to teach senior citizens online skills.

Wittbrodt thought that was cool, so she donated $25 through a new approach the Upper Peninsula university is using: pitching of an idea online and asking people to make a donation, a strategy known as crowdfunding.

“It’s really great there are older people who are trying to grasp the computer world,” said Wittbrodt, a Michigan Tech alumna who is vice president of a software company for auto repair shops in Traverse City. “They can get left out of a lot of things if they don’t have that knowledge.”

Wittbrodt personifies a new source of revenue for researchers in an era when the funding environment for universities is more challenging than it has been in years. Academics who create a proposal, put it online and market it with social media can attract people’s attention — and financial support — for new ideas and research.

Donors can be people who are either interested in or touched by a project — including research into rare health problems, community outreach or work that attracts the public’s imagination, such as space exploration.

Though the contributions from crowdsourcing are small, they add up and represent a new frontier for academic funding.

“Crowdfunding is here to stay,” said Natasha Chopp, research development and marketing manager of Superior Ideas, the crowdfunding site created two years ago at Michigan Tech. “It’s a new, kind of exciting way for people to spread the word and reach a whole different network of people.”

When combined with promotion through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, crowdfunding has helped raise money for new business owners, musicians and nonprofits. Last month, an Ohio man raised $55,000 to make a bowl of potato salad.

It’s also a worldwide phenomenon. In May, the United Kingdom-based Crowd Funding Centre released a report showing that the practice is growing globally, more than doubling every 60 days. The report estimated that 18,000 to 22,000 projects are open at any time.

Academia entered the foray as funding for research through the federal government — mostly through the National Institutes of Health — has been scaled back in recent years. After peaking at $31.2 billion in fiscal year 2010, the NIH’s budget decreased in each of the next three years, falling to $29.3 billion in 2013.

With government funding down, researchers have looked more to private investors to help support their work, said Daryl Weinert, associate vice president for research-sponsored projects at the University of Michigan. In general, 80 percent of university research is supported by the government, 10 percent by private investors and 10 percent by philanthropic organizations.

Crowdfunding is the newest alternate source of money, though it is not expected to replace or even rival federal grants.

“(But) it’s intriguing,” Weinert said. “You suddenly have a chance through the power of technology to move quickly and to connect with specialized audiences with special interests. That was never true before the power of the Internet and social media. It’s been intriguing to watch the kind of things that crowdfunding has enabled.”

Though crowdfunding is still in its infancy at Michigan universities, many see it as an avenue of funding to explore and mine.

Michigan’s Tech’s crowdfunding website has raised $84,000 for 40 projects so far.

Other universities are still experimenting.

At the University of Michigan, two engineering professors recently used the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to help fund a project for an interplanetary satellite mission with aspirations of going to asteroids, Mars and eventually to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn to look for life.

The project sought funds to develop and test technology developed at UM for a miniature thruster that would be mounted on a small spacecraft, also developed at UM. The thruster, the first of its kind, would help the spacecraft leave the orbit of Earth and travel in space. It would make space travel quicker and cheaper.

Though the project did not meet its goal last year of $200,000, it still captured the attention of nearly 1,300 backers who donated $67,865.

Meanwhile, at Michigan State University, a family helped raise money through crowdfunding for professor Richard Neubig’s research into scleroderma — a rare and often fatal disease, causing the thickening of tissue — that lacks any effective treatments.

Neubig — along with colleagues at UM, where he previously worked — has identified a core signaling pathway that activates the disease, and chemical compounds that have the potential to turn it off.

This research was made possible with a $150,000 grant from John and Lisa Rye of Ann Arbor. The couple’s son started displaying symptoms that doctors were unable to identify at first, and which the Ryes suspected could have been scleroderma.

Even though his son turned out not to have the rare disease and is fully recovered, John Rye said he and his wife made it their mission to try to eradicate the disease.

In addition to their donation to researchers, they decided to crowdfund to raise more money. Their campaign has only raised about $25,000 so far, but they are believers in the concept.

“It’s the next leg of fundraising,” said Rye, who’s a partner in a small equity firm in Birmingham. “It’s one of the pieces that will be used for raising money for all sorts of things, whether for the movies, software companies or for products, it is just booming now. It’s the future.”

Neubig cautioned that crowdfunding is never going to drive big projects.

“But it can provide critical bridging funds to take an idea and move it a step along where it will interest big pharma or the NIH,” Neubig said. “Any creative researcher these days is going to look at a crowdfunding among the range of funding sources.”

Crowdfunding can, some argue, raise money for small projects with big impact.

For nearly three years, Michigan Tech associate professor Chuck Wallace has been doing outreach with his computer science students to help the elderly and break down digital barriers. Every week, students have met with older adults at the local library to dispel myths, teach them skills to stay safe while connecting with loved ones and more.

Crowdfunding helped raise $3,360 for the project to buy tablets for use in the class and pay for the tutors. Eventually, Wallace hopes to raise enough funds for an immersion tech camp for older adults to hone their technology skills.

“We are creating a community of people who help each other,” Wallace said.
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