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August 28, 2013

New Stanford program brings innovative engineering ideas to life

The Accel Innovation Scholars program allows engineering doctoral candidates to explore entrepreneurship and gain the knowledge, skills and mindset to bring breakthrough ideas to the world.

By Michael Pena

Anais Saint-Jude, left, special projects designer at STVP, talks with Subhan Ali, doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering and one of 12 Accel Innovation Scholars. (Photo: Eli Shell / STVP)

More than 250 students earn their doctorates each year at Stanford's School of Engineering.

Some go on to academic careers in scholarly research, while many join or launch companies using the knowledge they gained in school. 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 PhD students from across the Engineering School, including the departments of 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 weekly 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 participants to take on leadership roles within an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"This program was developed because this is the opportunity I wanted when I was a PhD student," said STVP Executive Director Tina Seelig. "When you're a PhD student who has any entrepreneurial leanings, it's very difficult to figure out how you might get your ideas out of the lab and into the world."

Powerful memories

Anshuman Sahoo, who expects to earn a doctorate 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 the 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 said, 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.

In his remaining time at Stanford, Sahoo said he 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, Sahoo said, 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, but also contribute to the legacy of the Accel Innovation Scholars program," he said.

Professional experience

The teaching team for the scholars program includes MS&E professors Tom Byers and Seelig, as well as Jeffrey Schox and Kate Rosenbluth. Schox, an associate professor (consulting), is an experienced patent attorney with years of experience teaching students how to evaluate the commercial potential of their ideas. Postdoc Rosenbluth – a former Stanford Mayfield Fellow and BioDesign Fellow at the university this past year – earned a doctorate 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 doctoral 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."

Byers, the entrepreneurship professor in Stanford's School of Engineering and one of STVP's faculty directors, said, "Especially in the School of Engineering, where a large percentage of the PhD 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, Calif. 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 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."

Michael Peña is a communications specialist at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

For more Stanford experts on engineering and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.

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Contact

Michael Peña, Stanford Technology Ventures Program: (650) 723-2164, mvpena@stanford.edu

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