Developing new ideas sometimes needs a boost – whether from a great mentor or having an opportunity to test out and validate prototypes. A program sponsored by the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy aims to provide both, and helps Stanford students develop their burgeoning sustainable energy ideas into full-fledged products in the process.

Launched in fall 2013, the Innovation Transfer Program bridges the gap between sustainable energy inventions and the creation of a commercial product. The program provides teams grant money to explore ideas and access to sustainability and business mentors.

The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy presents Women Entrepreneurs in Sustainability 2017 at Huang Engineering Center: (L-R) Stacey Bent, director of the TomKat Center; Christine Su, PastureMap; Ugwem Eneyo, Solstice; Hedi Razavi, Keewi.

The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy presents Women Entrepreneurs in Sustainability 2017 at Huang Engineering Center: (L-R) Stacey Bent, director of the TomKat Center; Christine Su, PastureMap; Ugwem Eneyo, Solstice; Hedi Razavi, Keewi. (Image credit: Casey Valentine)

“What we wanted to do is try to help get some of the great ideas that are being worked on at Stanford in the area of sustainable energy out beyond the university walls,” said Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering and director of TomKat. She explains there is a need in the marketplace for sustainable energy ideas and the program provides “that little extra time, a little bit of money, and a lot of mentorship to see if things can really take off beyond the Stanford research level.”

Altogether, the program has provided $2.5 million of funding, and teams have gone on to raise about $60 million dollars from outside sources to continue their work. To date, 31 teams have tested and developed sustainable energy inventions, with one acquisition and nine revenue-generating companies that moved their ideas from academia to the marketplace.

Funding energy ideas

Funded sustainable energy projects range from energy generation, storage and management to the connection between energy, food, water and the environment. In addition to funding, student teams receive professional advice and mentoring throughout the development process.

Brian Bartholomeusz, executive director of the Innovation Transfer Program, said the program creates an opportunity for hands-on learning and experimentation in a real world environment – something that isn’t always possible in a traditional class. “Oftentimes when research is undertaken here, it sort of stops at the very elementary state – there isn’t really a facility for people to take something that’s very scientific or in a test tube and convert it into something that looks a little more like what the outside world could visualize as something useful,” he said.

One way for teams to try out their idea is to build a professional working model. “They could build a semi-industrial prototype – you know, not all wires and chewing gum and sticky tape – something that actually looks like something that you would buy or install on the outside,” Bartholomeusz said.

Teams try these prototypes out at customer sites early in the process. This step allows teams to determine if there is a need for the product and how they might improve their design. And sometimes, it allows the team to decide not to pursue the idea. “For us, success could be that they determine it’s sort of a nifty idea, but it really doesn’t work on the outside,” Bartholomeusz said. He added that success includes learning lessons that apply to future pursuits.

Team Building

One of the fall 2016 teams created a pocket-sized, battery-powered device to detect food spoilage called Jengu. Morgan Paull, a graduate student in bioengineering and Jengu team member, said the grant money allowed them to develop the technology for Jengu in half the time, but added that the mentoring and professional connections have been the standout benefit.

Stacey Bent, Director of TomKat Center (Image credit: Casey Valentine)

“About a million programs with the same intent exist, but TomKat has been particularly skillful in helping people in our position move forward,” Paull said. “The TomKat folks seem to really understand what it’s like to do what we’re doing, and they do a marvelous job of supporting us in ways that have a real impact.”

Some teams who graduated from the program have been steadily building their companies. After graduation, co-founders Jennifer Tsau and Hedi Razavi started an energy management and conservation company called Keewi.

Tsau said that the TomKat program made all the difference in their work. “The grant really kicked things off for us – it helped us explore things. We definitely moved quicker than we would have without it,” she said. “And as you can imagine, with start-ups, timing is everything and you want to move fast.” She added that being a TomKat grantee also boosts credibility for a new company, which is helpful when courting prospective clients.

True innovation transfer

Although the formal relationship ends when grantees graduate, the inventors are not forgotten. In many cases, the relationship between the program and the alumni transfers to new ventures, including hosting new interns at their start-ups.

Danica Sarlya, center and program manager at TomKat, started a summer internship program in 2014 for undergraduates. The goal was to match students with Innovation Transfer start-up companies.

She started small. “We wanted to see if there’s a need, see if there’s the desire,” Sarlya said. “When we received 60 applications for the 4 internship slots, we were like, ‘OK, next year we need to try and find more!’” She added that interest continues to grow – this summer there will be 20 interns.

Keewi took their experience and brought it full circle: they hosted an intern last summer and are planning on having another this year. “It was super helpful for us,” Tsau said. As Keewi grew, they were looking to make changes to their web application. “We were able to get someone who was majoring in computer science and had previous front end development experience.”

Tsau said that she and co-founder Razavi have participated in multiple events with the TomKat Center since graduating and will continue to do so. “The community, the connections, the feedback and advice we got is what makes it super unique. It’s really special what they’ve been able to do.”

Bent is also the Jagdeep and Roshni Singh Professor in the School of Engineering, senior associate dean for faculty and academic affairs, a senior fellow in the Precourt Institute for Energy, a member of Stanford Bio-X and an affiliate of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.