Stanford students launch incubator to support projects fighting COVID-19

The COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab has convened hundreds of Stanford affiliates to form or volunteer on projects addressing the pandemic.

A student-led initiative is connecting hundreds of Stanford affiliates – mostly students – to projects and ventures that are fighting COVID-19 and its ramifications.

Stanford students Josh Payne and Juli Romero are two of the co-directors of the COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab. (Image credit: Courtesy Josh Payne)

The COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab is a new organization sponsored by the Stanford Biosecurity program in the School of Medicine. The lab is an incubator that provides pro bono services, financial assistance and general support to organizations working on projects that address everything from job searching to social isolation to health data detection.

“We’re bringing together people from across fields to think outside the box and help tackle problems related to COVID-19,” said Josh Payne, ’20, an incoming member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Class of ’22 and co-director of the lab.

Since launching in March, the lab has grown to include 21 projects and hundreds of Stanford volunteers. While most people involved are graduate students, some are undergrads, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members. The projects they create or assist aim to serve the needs of the general public, not just the Stanford community.

Payne and his fellow co-directors are encouraging anyone in the Stanford community, especially students, to get involved by volunteering their time and skills to support these projects, or by pitching ideas for new ones.

“We’re very eager to have students get involved,” Payne said. “They don’t need a project to join, but if they do, that’s great and we can help.”

Impactful projects

The lab is currently supporting projects in medicine, information, business, socializing and civics. While some projects were created outside of Stanford, Payne said many were started by university affiliates through the incubator.

“About one-half of projects on site were formed as a result of the lab,” Payne said.

Some projects might be of particular interest to students. AccessBell, for example, helps students who have lost their jobs or summer internships due to the pandemic by connecting them with professionals who provide career guidance. In addition to encouraging students to use the platform, the two Stanford students leading the project are encouraging professionals to volunteer their time to talk with students who are seeking guidance during the pandemic.

Virtual Companions is a platform that connects elderly people with young adult volunteers through weekly phone calls and virtual entertainment opportunities. The lab has helped the platform connect to local senior homes, recruit volunteers and find tech talent to create the platform’s website. The team leading the project is also seeking volunteers to provide legal expertise and conduct outreach.

Another project is Virufy, an international collaboration involving several organizations and was co-founded by a Stanford student. The platform seeks to create a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence technology to gather a user’s health data in order to detect the likelihood of having COVID-19 in just minutes. Although Virufy was created before the launch of the Innovation Lab, Payne said his lab has been able to support the project.

Virtual Companions – which connects Stanford students and other university affiliates with senior citizens – is among the projects supported by the COVID-19 Response Innovation Lab. (Image credit: Courtesy Gaby Li)

“We’ve been able to connect them with other researchers, with legal information or grants,” Payne said. “We’ve also helped them acquire personnel to work on the project.”

Juli Romero is one of the lab’s co-directors and head of outreach and research. She said that each of the projects that the lab is supporting needs volunteers with such skills as web design, creating graphics and writing content. Since the projects are all non-profit organizations, they also need help finding financial support.

“A lot of teams are thinking about funding, so they’re in need of people who have experience in grant writing,” Romero said.

A call to action

The lab’s origins date back to mid-March when Payne left campus and returned home to Texas. Wanting to find a way to support those most in need during the pandemic, he reached out to his fellow members of the GSB Class of ’22 to see who was interested in collaborating.

“That call to action received a very encouraging amount of traction,” Payne said.

After receiving an overwhelming response, Payne, Romero, Anica Oesterle, MBA ’22, Daniel Reyes, MBA ’22, and Nancy Xu, PhD ’25, launched the lab. Since then, it has grown significantly, and the directors plan to expand it to other colleges and universities. Payne also hopes that when the pandemic ends, the lab will continue to operate and support other critical needs.

“In a classic Stanford fashion, this effort brings an interdisciplinary and inclusive mindset to innovation around building the response and resilience both to the current pandemic as well as to the future ones,” said Dr. Milana Trounce, a clinical professor in emergency medicine who also teaches in the biosecurity program. “It brings together the entire community both at Stanford and beyond to tackle a wide spectrum of challenges posed by this pandemic. It has been heartening to see the community rally around this effort, the number and scope of current projects, and the amount accomplished in a very short period of time”

Stanford students and postdocs interested in joining a project or pitching a new one can fill out this form. Stanford faculty members or other experts interested in volunteering can fill out this form.