Stanford’s School of Engineering graduates more than 250 Ph.D. students each academic year. Some go on to academic careers doing scholarly research, many join or launch companies using the knowledge they gained in school, and some eventually do both. As a result, a significant number of engineering doctoral students are eager to learn how to evaluate the commercial viability of new technology and how to bring those ideas to life.
There is a new program that does just that.
The Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), in the School of Engineering’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, has just launched the Accel Innovation Scholars program (AIS). The inaugural group includes a dozen Ph.D. students from across the engineering school, including aeronautics and astronautics, bioengineering, chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, and management science and engineering (MS&E).
From July 2013 through June 2014, the Accel Innovation Scholars will meet once each week to focus on opportunity evaluation, technology commercialization and entrepreneurial leadership. The program includes case studies with guest speakers, workshops, field trips, mentors and group projects – all designed to prepare them to take on leadership roles within an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“As a Ph.D. student with entrepreneurial leanings, it’s difficult to figure out how to get your ideas out of the lab and into the world.”“This is the type of program that I wanted when I was a graduate student,” said STVP Executive Director Tina Seelig. “As a Ph.D. student with entrepreneurial leanings, it’s difficult to figure out how to get your ideas out of the lab and into the world.”
Anshuman Sahoo, who expects to earn a Ph.D. in MS&E next spring, was drawn to the program by his passion for combining technology and finance to deliver wide-scale social benefits. This passion can be traced back to a night when he was just 5 years old, lying on the roof of his grandfather’s house in rural India. As a breeze rustled nearby coconut palms, the tranquility was interrupted by shouts of “The power’s out!”
Contrast that innocent memory with his experience upon visiting India again as a college freshman. It was then that Sahoo realized that the blackouts he remembered from childhood are the same ones that force village children to study by the deadly, pollutant-laced glow of wood-burning stoves.
Sahoo has since developed a very nuanced understanding of investment-assessment methodologies, both as a student at Stanford and through professional consulting. And whether for a venture capital firm or as an entrepreneur, he says he’s building the expertise to assess different investment opportunities – especially ones that could result in widespread deployment of cost-effective, low-carbon energy technologies in rural India and other impoverished regions of the world.
So, in his remaining time at Stanford, Sahoo hopes to gain a deeper awareness of new and emerging energy technologies, and then learn from his fellow scholars if and how they’ve grappled with challenges of gaining market acceptance.
Eventually, though, Sahoo says he would like to be the person who deploys the innovation that will bring electricity to those who have never had it. “I believe my life experiences and connection to rural India will allow me to not only pursue the unique opportunities in that market,” he says, “but also contribute to the legacy of the Accel Innovation Scholars program.”
The teaching team for the scholars program includes MS&E Professors Tom Byers and Seelig, as well as Jeffrey Schox and Kate Rosenbluth. Schox is an experienced patent attorney with years of experience teaching students how to evaluate the commercial potential of their ideas. Rosenbluth – a former Stanford Mayfield Fellow and BioDesign Fellow at the university this past year – earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco.
STVP Special Projects Designer Anaïs Saint-Jude runs the Accel Innovation Scholars program. Saint-Jude previously directed BiblioTech, a Stanford program that connected humanities Ph.D. students with the entrepreneurship community. “In many ways, the programs have much in common,” Saint-Jude said. “Each one of these first Accel Innovation Scholars brings an amazing set of experiences and ideas to the table. We’re truly excited to watch their progress over the next year – and in the years ahead.”
“…it is core to our mission to create programs that open students to the promise of entrepreneurship and prepare them to be innovative and entrepreneurial leaders.”Byers, the Entrepreneurship Professor in Stanford’s School of Engineering and one of STVP’s faculty directors, summed it up this way: “Especially in the School of Engineering, where a large percentage of the Ph.D. students will go into industry, it is core to our mission to create programs that open students to the promise of entrepreneurship and prepare them to be innovative and entrepreneurial leaders.”
The program is supported by Accel Partners, a leading global venture capital firm headquartered in Palo Alto. Seelig said the idea for the program grew out of a conversation with Accel Partner Ping Li about how the firm might help Stanford students gain the knowledge, skills and mindset needed to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.
“My partners and I are delighted to support this exciting new effort,” Li said. “It is clear that the participants are going to make huge contributions to the world.”
‘Being a Part of It’
“The ability to connect what I’m doing as a Ph.D. student to the entrepreneurial landscape is huge,” said Theresa Lynn Johnson, in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She is entering the final year of her Ph.D. National Science Foundation Fellowship program.
Johnson focuses on plasmas and radio frequency wireless engineering. She earned her undergraduate degree at Stanford as well, in the specialty major of Science, Technology and Society. But soon after, she succumbed to the lure of the startup culture around her and joined Apture, a web-enhancement company that has since been acquired by Google.
After less than a year, though, Johnson said she had already gotten restless. So she returned to Stanford and attended graduate school, earning a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 2010. Now heading into the final year of her Ph.D. program, Johnson is at the spot when many aspiring professors seek out faculty openings.
But she’s also excited about the opportunities presented by entrepreneurship. For years, she has been a teaching assistant in the MS&E course “Technology Venture Formation” and attended STVP’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lectures.
“As a Ph.D. student, I am excited to explore the ways that I can apply my skills to startup ventures,” Johnson said. “I believe that entrepreneurship is the key to impacting widespread societal change, and I know that I want to be a part of it.”