The University of Virginia (and an increasing number of research universities) is leveraging crowd-sourced funding to support and highlight ongoing research projects.

“We hear from a lot of stakeholders and a lot of others that they would like to know more [about projects] and understand how to better engage with us,” said Mark Crowell, executive director of UVa Innovation and UVa’s associate vice president for research.

Crowdfunding, said Crowell, is “strategically a very important step, but more importantly, it gives us a chance to push out a number of projects.”

The first-of-its-kind program at UVa launched earlier this month with two projects.

Jim Smith, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department, is leading the Clean Water by PureMadi project. The project’s goal is to make simple and inexpensive water purification tools available in rural areas of South Africa.

Kathryn Laughon, an associate professor in the nursing school, is leading a project to reduce inequity in forensic exams following sexual assault. The project’s goal is to develop an improved forensic dye that can help doctors better visualize injuries regardless of skin tone.

UVa Innovation has partnered with USEED, a philanthropic-oriented crowdfunding platform targeted toward higher education. The USEED UVa page features full project details, videos, the ability to donate online and a funding tracker.

As of late last week, about 25 people had contributed toward the $35,000 goal for the water project.

The water project has two products — silver-impregnated ceramic water filters and palm-sized ceramic tablets. They can be used separately or together. Used together, the large filter traps particulates and kills microbes. The tablets provide sustained treatment for the particle-free water about six months.

Both the filter, which looks like a large flower pot with a rounded bottom, and the tablets, are currently in production in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The crowdfunding will help support marketing, expansion and product awareness.

Graduate students Beeta Ehdaie and Carly Krause worked on the project in South Africa last year and plan to return this summer.

“I think it could be a big game changer,” said Ehdaie. “It’s very low cost, it can be made locally and it’s effective from what we’ve seen in a laboratory.”

Although the focus is on developing countries, Ehdaie said the technology also has applications closer to home, such as use in areas struck by natural disasters or for recreational purposes.

About 45 people had contributed toward the $19,000 goal for the forensic project as of last week.

Laughon, who is also director of UVa’s forensic nurse examiner team and provides direct clinical care to sexual assault victims, said the crowdfunding and enhanced visibility for the project will enable students to have a hands-on role in development and testing.

If a sexual assault is suspected, nurses and doctors use a dye called toluidine blue to help see very small tears and abrasions. But the dye doesn’t work well on women with dark skin. The crowdfunding will support the viability and safety testing of a new fluorescent dye.

“We know for sure that a substantial number of people, probably about half of women who are sexually assaulted, have no injuries. … That’s just one piece of information, but it doesn’t rule out sexual assault.”

“The problem for individuals of color who are assaulted and dealing with the criminal justice system is multifaceted,” said Laughon. “This is not going to solve that. However, it will put all victims of sexual assault who want to go through the criminal justice process on equal footing for possibly finding whatever physical evidence exists.”

“Obviously, the financial support that will come to the project will be very helpful for our work in South Africa,” said Smith. “It just provides greater visibility to the work that we’re doing and I think that will have benefits for many years in the future.”

The crowdfunding initiative for the water and forensic projects will remain open until June 27. Donations are tax-deductible. Under the agreement with USEED, UVa can introduce up to 10 projects over a six-month pilot period.