Two strategies to accelerate problem-driven R&D at your institution

By Ashley Delamater

New challenges create opportunity for research efforts

As research grants become more competitive for star faculty and funding for grant-giving institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation declines, colleges and universities find it harder to acquire the funds they need to sustain their research efforts.

At the same time, harsh criticism from the media over the use of federal dollars for research is placing pressure on institutions to orient their research around practical, well-defined problems that increasingly require a diverse network of experts to answer.

These shifts in research orientation, funding, and competition are certainly challenging on their face. But they also provide institutions with a unique opportunity to leverage their diverse knowledge networks through interdisciplinary collaboration around well-defined industry and societal challenges.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan are two institutions that have developed creative ways to quickly convene a variety of experts to find solutions to specific challenges.

1. The hackathon approach

In 2011, MIT founded Hacking Medicine, an institute that aims to disrupt health care and medicine with innovative solutions developed through hackathons. Hackathons are events that generally take place over a 24-72-hour period and challenge participants to develop applications, products, and tools to solve a specific problem.

The institute runs multiple corporate-sponsored hackathons both on and off campus each year. Individuals can participate for free, but must apply for one of the available spots. Participants have 48 hours to pitch a problem, form teams, prototype a solution, and present that solution to a panel of experts. Winners receive monetary prizes.

In 2012, an MIT hackathon held with the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) brought together an automotive engineer in his post doctorate at MIT, a design engineer and entrepreneur, and a pediatrician. Together they developed a handheld resuscitator to prevent infant deaths in developing countries.

Hackathons Bring Together Diverse Expertise

Hackathons Bring Together Diverse Expertise 

Since winning the event the team has filed for a patent, won several awards and grants, and entered discussions with potential corporate partners.

2. The crowdsourcing approach

The MCubed program at the University of Michigan matches research problems from external funders— donors, corporations, and foundations—with interdisciplinary faculty research teams through an online portal. The external funder defines their research question with the help of MCubed staff, who then post it to the MCubed website and send an email to a faculty list. Interested faculty respond with a proposal of 1,000 words or less. While external funders note their top choices, the MCubed staff makes the ultimate decision.

Once matched, faculty convene a team, which must include members from different colleges or units. The team provides updates on the status of their research to the external funder through the MCubed website.

The MCubed Process

The MCubed Process 

Currently about 5,000 faculty receive emails alerting them to donor-defined research questions and between 10 and 20 respond to each proposal.

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