Superior Ideas: New Year, New Funding

Sunrise over Keweenaw Waterway
Sunrise over Keweenaw Waterway
Superior Ideas is the crowdfunding platform run through Michigan Tech where researchers hone their outreach and proposal writing skills.

Did you know Michigan Tech has its own crowdfunding site? It's called Superior Ideas and it has helped researchers nail big grant proposals.

Crowdfunding is not for the lazy. It is also not an alternative to traditional research funding through federal and private grants. It is an excellent way to get a new project off the ground, assess people's interest in the research and hone proposal writing skills.

To make sure everyone is on the same page: crowdfunding is when individuals pool their money through many small donations to help fund larger projects. It's definitely a popularity contest. But crowdfunded STEM does not need to reach Prom Queen status to be rewarding.

Three different researchers share their successes and challenges using Michigan Tech's Superior Ideas crowdfunding platform.

The Sleep Physiologist

"Money is money. Crowdfunding forced me out of my comfort zone and helped me be more creative to diversify my research funding portfolio."Jason Carter, Chair and Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology

Carter recently received a $1.9 million NIH grant to study alcohol's impact on the cardiovascular system during sleep. He got his pilot data for the project through a Superior Ideas-funded campaign and attributes part of his funding success to the lessons he learned in the process.

The easiest part was setting up the website. The hardest part was sharing it out. Carter says he did a lot of legwork, sending out emails, making cold calls, introducing himself to people far beyond his own personal network. From the beginning, he had a clear idea of the goals: get pilot data for a clinical study and show that even though Michigan Tech does not have a hospital or medical school, the university is capable of pursuing large health science grants. By collaborating with the Portage Health to secure matching donations, Carter raised $25,000 for his initial sleep study and established connections with the Mayo Clinic and University of Chicago to collaborate on clinical studies.

The Fruit Fly Geneticist

"You have to appeal to people's hearts."Thomas Werner, Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Werner called his Superior Ideas campaign the "rainy day fund" and says it helped his lab ride out a dry spell in between start-up funds and securing his first major NIH and NSF grants.

All researchers know how tough it is to get a grant and, even though he was applying for them nonstop, Werner felt concerned about funding studies on connecting fruit fly genes to human diseases. As he put together and ran his Superior Ideas campaign, he says he learned a lot about writing for particular audiences. In crowdfunding, research needs to have a clear connection to its application—and people need to feel it matters in their personal lives. While that is different from the logical appeals needed in a grant proposal, Werner recalls how distilling his message for a lay audience helped him articulate his ideas better for reviewers. 

As a part of his campaign, Werner also offered a bonus to students. During fall semester finals, he told them he'd give each student a single extra credit point if they shared his Superior Ideas link to their Facebook page and showed him proof. Nowadays, continuous social media outreach is crucial for a solid campaign.

The Protein Materials Engineer

"What do people need? Figure that out and people will be willing to invest in a project's success."Bruce Lee, Associate Professor, Biomedical Engineering

Lee earned a place in the Navy's Young Investigator Program (YIP) last year. He attributes part of the success to what he learned through his Superior Ideas project: the importance of visuals and how to clarify the complexity of basic science for different audiences.

At the time of his Superior Ideas project, Lee was working on creating a hydrogel actuator using a protein from mussels. He admits the original figures he included were not effective for a crowdfunding audience; he says a simplified—but no less accurate—rendition by a graphic designer helps draw people in.

Likewise, learning how strip away excess information in a project's description helps make a clearer picture in someone's head. The part that changes is how much detail that image needs depending on whether the reader is a colleague, reviewer, potential donor or student.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.