Every year, hundreds of new inventions are disclosed to the Stanford University Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), but only a fraction get licensed to a commercial entity or attract investment. A new initiative of OTL, the High Impact Technology (HIT) Fund, hopes to bridge the gap between the academic lab and the market, where those discoveries can benefit the public.

One of the pilot projects awarded through the HIT Fund creates immersive sonic experiences by situating participants in the acoustics of any building or physical structure in augmented and mixed reality. (Image credit: igorovsyannykov / Pixabay.com)

“Our people have innovative ideas that deserve to reach beyond the boundaries of Stanford,” said Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research. “I’m proud that any faculty, staff, or student with a demonstrated and viable innovation who needs a boost to traverse the winding road to entrepreneurship can apply for the HIT Fund.”

In 2022, OTL set aside $17 million in licensing income to launch HIT, hiring Director Nitin Parekh and Program Manager Laura Clark Murray to bring the initiative to life. Parekh began by identifying what people on campus need in their quest to commercialize their technologies. “As I talked to various people, I realized it wasn’t all about the money,” Parekh said. “Equally important was offering business guidance and providing industry connections. We’re trying to give them the tools and skill sets to succeed on their journey of commercialization or entrepreneurship.”

The HIT Fund launched its first call for applications on June 1, and proposals for milestone-based awards of up to $250,000 are being accepted until July 15 on its website. There are planned Q&A sessions to help interested teams prepare their submission. An advisory board composed of industry executives, venture capitalists, and Stanford faculty will review applications with awards announced this fall.

Last year, to shape the fund’s offerings, Parekh selected 13 technologies for a pilot program. The results have been promising. All teams in the pilot cohort had access to domain experts and industry executives, Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA student interns, and regular contact with Parekh and Murray, who provided mentorship and general support.

Three have already created companies and are engaged in licensing negotiations. The HIT Fund has collectively facilitated discussions for project leaders with more than 150 industry experts and stakeholders, including potential partners, possible customers, and venture capital investors.

The fund is open to faculty, staff, and students who have filed a disclosure at Stanford. So far, pilot awardees hail from diverse corners of the university, including the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Bioengineering, Chemistry, and Orthopaedic Surgery, and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

Below are HIT Fund success stories from some of the pilot projects.

Reducing energy use at wastewater treatment plants

Before partnering with the HIT Fund, Stanford engineering Professor Meagan Mauter said a digital technology that postdoctoral scholar Jose Bolorinos, MS ’17, MS ’21, PhD ’21, designed to flexibly reduce energy consumption at wastewater treatment plants was “purely theoretical.” One major obstacle was that few plants are prepared to adopt the system in its entirety.

Today, parts of their software – including energy audits and assessments of how to shift operations to off-peak pricing hours – have been applied to several facilities.

“The HIT Fund has been really helpful in thinking about intermediate products that could be on-ramps for the ultimate deployment of this technology,” Mauter said.

The HIT Fund assigned a Stanford GSB MBA student intern to help the pair develop a business model. Additionally, Parekh connected the team to potential funders and mentors, including some who are now advising on the project.

“These things are really important in translating an idea in an academic paper into something that an actual wastewater treatment plant would be interested in and willing to use,” Mauter said.

Toward relief for people with knee osteoarthritis

In 2022, Scott Uhlrich, MS ’16, PhD ’20, director of research in the Stanford Human Performance Lab, co-authored a study that showed people could learn a new way of coordinating their calf muscles using real-time biofeedback that reduces load on their knees by 12%.

The results were significant – the equivalent of someone losing about 20% their body weight – and had huge implications for people with knee osteoarthritis. Parekh reached out to encourage the team to apply to the HIT Fund.

Since then, Uhlrich and co-PI Stanford bioengineering and orthopaedic surgery Professor Scott Delp have been working with a Stanford GSB MBA student on a business plan and with a wearable device company on a prototype. The team expects to begin testing the device on people with knee osteoarthritis next month.

“I was very attracted by how practical the HIT Fund team was in wanting us to translate this idea out of the lab,” Uhlrich said. “Having a Stanford MBA student work on a business model and figure out the regulatory pathway and reimbursement options – that’s a huge asset and allows us to focus on developing the technology.”

Bringing the room to the music

After Stanford adjunct professor of music Jonathan Abel, MS ’84, PhD ’89, and Eoin Callery, DMA ’16, co-invented a technology that can recreate the acoustics of any physical space – including Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia – they knew there were potential commercial applications for the system, which they developed with input from Stanford music Professor Jonathan Berger, DMA ’83. But they realized how much they would benefit from the expertise of the HIT Fund team in exploring those applications.

To help, the HIT Fund is setting up meetings with high-level executives, including in film and gaming, and an MBA student will be shaping the business model.

The HIT Fund team asked questions that “just really focused us on the kind of things we could be doing,” Abel said. “It takes a certain skill set to understand how to get the buy-in to make it happen.”

Callery agreed. “You can have all the ideas you want, but you need an outside voice to rein everything in,” he said. “If you have 150 applications, that’s great, but what’s the one that should be tackled first?”