Universities get a little help from their friends with crowdfunding

Universities in Michigan are getting into the act of seeking funds via crowdfunding for research projects and entrepreneurial ideas. Read how two universities are using crowdfunding to support projects that will impact our lives.
For young people who grew up in the digital age, using computers, smartphones, and other high-tech gadgets is as easy as posting a funny cat video to YouTube. However, for older folks who feel more comfortable with a rotary phone than a smartphone, digital technology can be pretty daunting.

At Michigan Technological University, hands-on training and research is taking place by students and faculty to bridge that gap--and it's taking place in the respective communities of Houghton and Hancock.

To fund the research and training the university has turned to an unlikely ally: crowdfunding. Via a website dubbed Superior Ideas, similar to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, individuals and groups can donate money to support research projects at MTU that interest them.

"The money comes from individuals, which fits well with our project because we're an outreach group aiming for people in our local communities," says MTU computer science professor Charles Wallace, who is helping to coordinate a project called Breaking Digital Barriers that uses Superior Ideas for funding.

Breaking Digital Barriers connects MTU students with local seniors, and more recently, with people who are looking to enter or reenter the workforce via Michigan Works but are rusty or lack computer skills. Wallace says not only do people in the community get help bridging the digital divide, the students also get a chance to see what people are struggling with when it comes to using these gadgets.

"These students will be the digital designers of the future," says Wallace.

One of many projects at MTU

Breaking Digital Barriers is just one of many research projects at MTU turning to crowdfunding platforms like Superior Ideas. The donations aren't huge. Wallace says a $500 donation is cause for celebration. Most donations are more like 50 bucks. Breaking Digital Barriers has received $2,500 in funds thus far, which Wallace says will be used, in part, to pay students to work with seniors through the summer so the seniors don't lose what they've gained from the program during the school year.

Due to the jumpstart this research has gained from crowdfunding sources, Wallace says it will be easier to approach foundations for additional funding, including matching funds. This will help him with his next goal, which is to see the program offered at other universities in the U.P.

"We're very excited about this," says Wallace. "We'll have most of the Upper Peninsula covered."

And that will be good news for people struggling to upload a funny video!

The idea of funding projects like this is an innovation in itself, a sorely needed one. Funding sources are drying up. For instance, research project grants funded by the National Institutes of Health has declined every year since 2004 and the proposal funding success rate has dropped below 20 percent.

The Superior Ideas model of crowdfunding is a flexible funding model that allows research and fundraising campaigns to receive all donations, regardless of whether they meet their funding goal or not. In other words, every pledge, large or small, supports researchers' work.
Other ideas brought forth by researchers at MTU worthy of crowdfunding include a super lens that could have many uses, like turning a smartphone into a high powered microscope; devising a gadget to calculate highway emissions as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, and growing veggies in a waste product.

Central Michigan University Research Corporation

When Water Works Academy needed funds to create a new website, they turned to the community and CMURC's Exchange, a crowdfunding platform for entrepreneurs. This way they could better reach potential clientele, which, for the Water Works Academy, is cosmetology students.

The CMU University Research Corporation's Exchange program is similar to, yet different from Superior Ideas. The corporation is a business incubator and accelerator working with entrepreneurs to jumpstart small businesses. It's actually a separate, nonprofit entity from CMU, though they do receive funding from CMU and lease space on campus.

Unlike Superior Ideas, which supports research at the university level, crowdfunding money from CMURC's Exchange program goes toward supporting entrepreneurs within CMURC. These folks run the gamut in age and experience.

"We're open to everyone," says Elissa Richmond, CMURC marketing and public relations director. "Most of our clients aren't students." However, she says students in the program are in a unique position; not only do they have a supportive place to go to try out their idea, they're also exposed to job seekers who may be looking for interns or to hire someone full time.

Entrepreneurs and freelancers who qualify for inclusion in the CMURC program can seek to raise money via the Exchange and are also privy to the resources of an incubator building within a designated SmartZone. These digs include a comfortable work environment and all of the latest tech gadgets, like smartboards, to help move an idea along.

Like Superior Ideas, CMURC's Exchange program looks to the community for support. Would-be entrepreneurs use social media networks to garner interest which they hope will lead to a donation to their cause.

In addition to using social media to connect with interested parties, entrepreneurs are encouraged to attend educational programs and get-togethers sponsored by CMURC, including a networking luncheon once a week, "Ideation" on Tuesday nights, and a wellness night for some casual fun and exercise.

"We know entrepreneurs need to be able to raise funds, but it's more about being able to perfect your pitch, sell yourself and your idea," says Richmond.
With a little help from your friends, a business like the Water Works Academy, and many other fledgling companies within the Exchange, can launch what they believe will be the next cutting edge company.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite.
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