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Technology

The Climate Tech Accelerator with a Football Team

What happens when Stanford tackles sustainability.

The Stanford logo and green energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Backed by a whopping $1.69 billion endowment, Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability — its first new school in more than 70 years — opened its doors two years ago, and what else came along with it but a new sustainability-focused accelerator specifically for the Stanford community. Seeking to move research out of the lab and into the real world, the Sustainability Accelerator provides early stage funding and a deep network of university-affiliated support to its grantees.

Now that the accelerator has staffed up, gathered insights from its first funding cohort, and given more structure to what is still a very flexibly organized program, I wanted to know more.

The basic concept sounded very Stanford-y indeed — gobs of money, a hugely valuable network, entrepreneurial vibes out the wazoo. But that’s nothing new. When I was at Stanford as an undergrad over a decade ago, The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, now the CEO of the Atlantic (and a fellow Stanford alumnus), quipped that the school had come to resemble “a giant tech incubator with a football team.” This was in the early days of Snapchat and around the time when over a dozen computer science students dropped out to work on the Venmo-wannabe Clinkle, which went up in smoke soon after. Concerns about the university’s deep ties to Silicon Valley and the preponderance of potentially pointless startups coming out of it coexisted with plaudits poured on alumni founders with started-in-a-garage-now-we’re-here type stories.

I thought it was all a bit much. But now there’s a sustainability accelerator, and man, does that sound like something we could all get behind. So I talked with the accelerator’s faculty director, Yi Cui, and managing director, Jeff Brown, about the accelerator’s goals, what sets it apart from the infinite other funding avenues in Silicon Valley, and how they go about deciding what concepts have the potential for widespread adoption, either in the commercial or the policy space.

Brown himself is a Stanford alum with a deep background as a Silicon Valley engineer and founder — in other words, he can talk the talk as well as he walks the walk. Prior to his current role at the sustainability accelerator, he was founder and CEO of Novvi, which makes plant-based oils for use in the lubricants industry. He told me that one of the primary elements that sets Stanford’s accelerator apart from other incubators or venture capital funds is that it’s not just focused on technical solutions to climate and sustainability problems.

“There’s a lot of challenges beyond technology,” Brown told me. “This is market development, this is frameworks that need to be globally aligned, this is policy that leads to new legislation in a global scenario. And so at the accelerator, we’re thinking about these things at that scale, and working in a very interdisciplinary manner across all those spaces.”

Thirty-one projects were selected to join the accelerator’s initial cohort in the summer of 2022, their teams generally comprised of researchers with deep subject area expertise — mostly professors partnering with other professors, faculty members or postdocs. Topics spanned the gamut from highly technical ideas like electrifying steam cracking reactors for industrial chemical production to policy projects such as reforming California’s approach to wildfire management or partnering with stakeholders to support the energy transition in Southeast Asia.

“We are interested in water, food. We are interested in climate adaptation,” Cui, a Stanford professor in both the Materials Science & Engineering department as well as the Energy Science & Engineering Department, told me. “We are also interested in new approaches that could be highly scalable for sustainability — for example, synthetic biology.” He also cited grid decarbonization and industrial decarbonization as focus areas.

And yet Brown also told me it’s vital that all teams, even policy-focused ones, demonstrate that they have potential backers outside the Stanford bubble. For legislative solutions, “you have to go out into the community and find that people agree and are willing to adopt that and move forward with you.” And for technical solutions, Brown said, “you've got to show that customers are willing to receive it, and there are other funding sources that buy into that, as you're going to need increasing capital to scale.”

For the accelerator’s first cohort, projects were organized into one of three categories based on their level of maturity — planning, mid-range, and large-scale, which dictated the amount of funding they were eligible to receive. Brown didn’t want to disclose how much money Stanford is pouring into these projects (although he did say they have a “large budget” to work with) but a 2022 request for proposals indicates that Level 1 projects could secure up to $100,000, Level 2 up to $400,000, and Level 3 up to $1,000,000. It also noted that project teams can specify their own timelines, ranging from three months up to a year, with the option for follow-on funding based on a project’s progress.

Going forward, cohorts will be organized around particular climate themes, a.k.a. “flagship destinations,” which will include key metrics for scalability and speed. The first focus area for the 2024 group is greenhouse gas removal, for which 16 projects were chosen based on their potential to remove a gigaton (that’s a billion tons, folks) of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere by 2050, either by technical or policy means. Examples include transforming rocks and mining waste into efficient CO2 sponges, and developing a monitoring, reporting, and verification framework for ocean-based carbon removal.

Brown emphasized the importance of MRV particularly, the Achilles’ heel of many well-intentioned carbon removal efforts. Reforestation, for example, “is not a technology problem,” he told me. “It's a framework problem around the MRV challenge, and getting the legislation in place, and getting community alignment around the world on how to execute this properly.”

Some in the Stanford community worry, however, that the choice of greenhouse gas removal as a focus area was influenced by the university’s fossil fuel connections, as big oil and gas companies often tout carbon capture as a solution that would allow them to continue producing fossil fuels. The Doerr School does accept research funding from fossil fuel companies, and three years ago, Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy collaborated with Shell, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies to host a workshop on carbon management. The Doerr School itself cited the meeting as one of two events that led to the focus on greenhouse gas removal.

Cui, though, has downplayed the meeting’s influence on the accelerator. In an interview with the Stanford Daily, he said that “greenhouse gas removal has always been incredibly important to everybody. It’s not because of the workshop.” It’s one of a few key climate solutions he always brings up in his talks, he added. “So it wasn’t hard at all to get to the point and say this should be the first flagship destination.”

In an effort to build the right internal partnerships, the accelerator is launching a postdoc fellowship program, in which entrepreneurial fellows will team up with faculty members to work on projects that align with flagship destinations. The inaugural class should be announced by the end of July. Cui told me the accelerator staff is also contemplating an entrepreneur-in-residence type of program and finding ways to deepen connections with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which has already partnered with the Doerr School for its ecopreneurship programs.

The point, of course, is to leverage the full weight of the Stanford network, giving project teams access to the entrepreneurial expertise of Silicon Valley as well as the interdisciplinary skillset among the university’s different schools and departments. It’s a much higher-touch experience than teams would get at other incubators or accelerators, Cui told me.

“We actually build an ecosystem,” he explained. “We provide coaching if it [a project] needs coaching. If it needs outside partners and connections, we build that in, we help the team to do that. And if the team doesn't have an entrepreneur type of person, we might hire a person to work with the team.”

And given the university’s reputation as, well, a tech incubator with a (now bad, I hear) football team, Cui stressed that there’s a surprising amount of promising research that never sees the light of day. “There are many technologies, many solutions actually developed in Stanford faculty’s lab — they don't come out, you're not even aware of them,” he told me. But their potential in the sustainability space could be huge, Cui said. “The accelerator’s function is super important to further grow and amplify the entrepreneurial spirit on Stanford campus, and also orient the faculty into working on scalable ideas.”

Green
Katie Brigham profile image

Katie Brigham

Katie is a staff writer for Heatmap covering climate tech. Based out of the Bay Area, she formerly worked as a reporter and producer for CNBC.com.

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