Team Led by CEE Professor Lutgarde Raskin Awarded Blue Sky Grant

News date: 
Thursday, August 2, 2018

Artificial photosynthesis that’s 10 to 100 times more efficient than plants for a sustainable vehicle fuel. A machine-learning-based approach for making “nanobiotics” to fight drug-resistant bacteria. New ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into useful products. And designs for urban water systems that harness the microbial communities that live in our water pipes, our rivers and our bodies.

With these four research projects that address some of society’s biggest threats, Michigan Engineering launches a $10 million funding program encouraging high-risk, high-reward work. Each team can receive up to $2.5 million over three years.

The Blue Sky Initiative is part of the University of Michigan College of Engineering’s new internal research funding approach that’s based on a startup investment model. It’s designed to give research teams a chance to try big, daring ideas, show results and build enough momentum to secure significant investment from partners such as federal agencies or corporations. On the other hand, the teams may find they overshot, and their experiments fail. College leaders are prepared for that outcome too.

“These are all ideas that could change the world—no less,” said Alec D. Gallimore, who is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of aerospace engineering.

“We’re talking about antibiotic resistance, aging water infrastructure and shifting population centers, climate change and sustainable energy solutions. These are some of the toughest problems we face as a 21st century society. If we want to solve them, we need to step outside our comfort zone, and that’s what we’re doing with Blue Sky.”

In one of the initiative’s nods to startup company investment, project leaders had to agree to meet certain milestones and have regular check-ins with program managers. If a project isn’t progressing, it may not receive its next installment. This is intended to encourage conversation about realistic outcomes and to provide an opportunity to reinvest resources elsewhere if a particular endeavor isn’t going as expected.

“Fundamentally this is a culture change exercise,” said Steven Ceccio, the Vincent T. and Gloria M. Gorguze Professor of Engineering and Associate Dean for Research at Michigan Engineering and one of the program founders. “When it comes to high-risk, high-reward ideas, we want our faculty to make that leap of faith, even if there is a chance they may fall. Our research culture should encourage and support intelligent risk taking.”

Michigan Engineering launches Blue Sky six years after establishing Mcubed, a one-of-a-kind seed funding program in which teams of three professors from at least two different disciplines across U-M’s campus could receive $60,000 seed grants with no traditional peer review. The Blue Sky nanobiotic project began in Mcubed.

Both programs were designed to encourage bold ideas and serve as complements to traditional research funding models. Traditional approaches typically require proofs of concept and preliminary data, which can make it difficult to get funding for daring ideas.

“The traditional U.S. research funding system works well and it has for a long time,” said Mike Drake, senior director of research relations at Michigan Engineering. “But we’re aiming to broaden our risk profile. U-M is one of the largest academic research enterprises in the country. I would argue that because of the strength of the institution we have a societal obligation to tolerate more risk than the traditional system and invest in the pursuit of ideas that may transform society.”

The 2018 Blue Sky projects include “Remaking water infrastructure by focusing on microbial biomes,” led by Lutgarde Raskin, the Altarum/ERIM Russell D. O’Neal Professor of Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Complex collections of microbes that work together to influence their environments are known as microbiomes. They exist in our bodies, in lakes and rivers, and in urban water systems. Scientists don’t know how these different microbiomes interact. They may do so in dangerous ways as evidenced by the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the Flint water crisis. As the water infrastructure ages, the human population grows, and extreme weather taxes urban systems, it’s increasingly important to understand and predict those microbiome interactions to harness their benefits and prevent harm. This project will develop new sensors to gather microbiome data in real-time across urban water systems to guide water treatment and distribution. This project includes 15 U-M faculty collaborators from engineering, environmental sciences, sustainability, education, infectious diseases, microbiology and immunology as well as collaborators from Northeastern University, the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University and the University of Puerto Rico.

Blue Sky is one of three new internal R&D funding initiatives the college is introducing as part of its Michigan Engineering 2020 strategic plan. Inspired by entrepreneurial funding models, the levels are somewhat similar to early-, mid- and late-stage startup funding. Blue Sky is analogous to the later-stage, higher-dollar contributions of venture capital. 

The response to the program demonstrates the need. Fully half of the college’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members submitted a proposal for one of the award categories.

By Nicole Casal Moore & Brad Whitehouse, College of Engineering
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