M-TRAC announces funding for first studies

By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 4, 2014

After the University unveiled a new, transportation-based branch of the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program last year, the program announced its inaugural grant winners on Jan. 23.

M-TRAC Transportation provides University professors and graduate students the opportunity to pitch proposals for prospective innovations in the transportation industry to a board of experts. The M-TRAC Oversight Committee awards selected projects as much as $75,000, as well as professional guidance to phase their research into the market.

“It provides a direct link for researchers to industry,” said Jay Ellis, program director for M-TRAC Transportation. “It’s quick feedback and expertise as to how to commercialize their ideas, and it keeps it in this region.”

Mihaela Banu, research associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Engineering Prof. Jack Hu, vice president of research, earned a grant for their pitch to replace the glass in fiberglass car frames with bamboo fiber sheets. According to the project abstract, the “most effective approach” to improving fuel efficiency is “reducing vehicle weight.” Bamboo frames would offer a 30-percent weight reduction at a low price.

Rackham student Muhammad Faisal and Engineering Prof. David Wentzloff’s idea also earned a grant to digitize cars’ embedded processors, and specifically the clocks within them. The duo’s research claims the increasing number of hardware processors in vehicles weighs them down, increases their costs and requires manufacturers to constantly alter designs to keep pace with technology.

In the project’s abstract, Wentzloff said “there’s a need for lower power, small form factor and low cost electronics.”

Meredith VanKoevering, entrepreneurial program manager at the Center for Entrepreneurship, said the new M-TRAC Transportation grant will increase future opportunities for faculty to engage in transnational research.

“It’s the first time the (process) has ever been tried outside of the life sciences projects,” VanKoevering wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a highly successful model to commercialization, so the hope is to replicate it in many other verticals once we prove its success in the transportation industry.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation helped the University create the transportation branch of M-TRAC. Paula Sorrell, managing director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the corporation, sat on the M-TRAC Transportation Oversight Committee and said the partnership also has important implications for transportation throughout the state of Michigan.

“Advanced transportation is important to the state for a number of reasons and helps us leverage numerous state assets,” Sorrell said. “U of M has been a great partner in this and really worked hard to help move it forward.”

University alum Alan Amici, head of Chrysler Group LLC’s Uconnect Systems and Services, also sat on the board, and said it was a great opportunity to stay connected to the school.

“Not only does it give me a chance to keep current with the unique research areas that can apply to the automotive industry, but also allows me to express my interest in technology and share my experiences with present and future graduates,” he wrote in a statement.