A few weeks ago I attended the 2012 Space Elevator Conference in Seattle and met Michael Laine, who heads up the Liftport Group.
Michael setup a Kickstarter campaign to secure funds for some basic space elevator research. His group is interested in the concept of an elevator on the moon, not Earth, which could be used to allow soft-landing of ships and cargo on the moon's surface, and fling ships and cargo at high speed into the outer solar system with minimal fuel.
The campaign's initial goal of just $8000 was quickly met, and has since exploded to almost ten times that (thanks in part to David Brin mentioning it during an NPR interview). This of course earned a lot of attention from the press (the headlines they've come up with are cringe-worthy, but that's typical).
Why such a small goal? One thing Michael understands is the need to take baby steps in order to accomplish the larger goal, and basic research is needed in many areas. And while most of the speakers at the conference also understand this, their approach seems entirely focused on securing government or university research grants. From what I've gleaned, Michael is something of a trailblazer and the use of Kickstarter to fund research certainly qualifies. Congrats, Michael, on your success!