Stanford accelerators move knowledge to impact in the world

Chaitan Khosla, a professor of chemical engineering and of chemistry who is leading the Innovative Medicines Accelerator, said one aspect of accelerators that is different from what has come before is their intent.

“An accelerator is a mechanistic means of being a purposeful university,” he said, referencing Stanford’s mission to promote the public welfare, as outlined in the Founding Grant.

In 2013, Khosla founded the institute Stanford ChEM-H to fill an academic gap he saw at the intersection of chemistry, engineering, medicine and human health. With the IMA, as with other accelerators, the gap that needs filling isn’t within Stanford but is between academic knowledge and the non-profits, governments or industries that could innovate on that knowledge with Stanford collaborators to both create and scale solutions.

This gap is often referred to as a “valley of death,” where good ideas die in the absence of bridges to help them across. In the case of the IMA, crossing the gap requires equipment and expertise to develop a new drug idea – what Khosla calls a drug prototype – and the ability to test that prototype in human tissues to give potential partners reassurance that the idea is worth investment.

Policy ideas, learning theories or new sustainable technologies all require different kinds of bridges, which is why the accelerators follow similar models but apply their funding opportunities, programming and staffing in different ways to traverse their own unique valleys of death.

The accelerator leaders each point out that bridges go two ways.

“Partnerships are part of how we drive forward the frontiers of knowledge,” said Dan Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education, who leads the Transforming Learning Accelerator. He said partnerships provide access to data sets, practical knowledge and a place to test theories that will ultimately inform faculty research.

“I reject the distinction between basic and applied research,” he said. “They inform each other.”

Theories of change

Schwartz said each of the accelerators organizes existing structures at Stanford around a particular theory for how they can invoke change.

“Our bet is that the fastest way to accelerate change in learning environments is to combine science and design,” he said.

The science of learning is something the Graduate School of Education has long engaged in. For example, Schwartz has found that when people learn negative numbers, parts of the brain that encode visual symmetry activate – knowledge that has led to better ways of teaching algebra. Design is how faculty and collaborators package the information, whether it’s through curricula, videos, technology or other materials.

“The fastest way to embody knowledge in a usable form is to create a design,” Schwartz said. “You can combine science and design to make products and processes that people want to adopt and use.”

Weinstein said that at universities, change has usually been mediated through communication in published papers, international meetings, symposia, working groups or public communications like op-eds or media interviews.

“That’s one theory of how change happens in the world, but we need new models,” he said. “If we hold ourselves accountable or desire an impact, communication on its own is insufficient.”

“Pursuing knowledge and action means seeding and sustaining multi-year partnerships.”

—Jeremy Weinstein

Professor of Political Science

“Pursuing knowledge and action means seeding and sustaining multi-year partnerships,” he said.

Deborah Sivas, professor in the Stanford Law School, led the external engagement working group of the faculty Blueprint Advisory Committee that is designing the new school focused on climate and sustainability. Her group proposed a Sustainability Accelerator after examining several models for how academic research can bring about change.

“Stanford already does a significant amount of engagement in the form of technology transfer, convening and knowledge dissemination,” she said, adding that faculty currently do much less work with policymaking and implementation. “Yet such policy work is critical to shaping the regulatory regimes and market incentives that we need for the transition to a sustainable world.”

With that in mind, the Sustainability Accelerator focuses on policy and technology, building on existing strengths in those areas, but adding funding, expert staffing and access to equipment to ensure ideas and technologies are innovated on and scaled by partners. The accelerator has two focus areas because many of the solutions needed to address sustainability challenges will involve both new technologies and policies to incentivize their uptake.

Building on the past

In many cases, the accelerators build on and extend work taking place within the many interdisciplinary institutes that arose over the past 20 years.

“If we were starting from scratch with the IMA, we would first have to invent ChEM-H,” Khosla said.

Likewise, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy both fund research that leads to new policy and technology ideas and have fostered external relationships.

“Our goal with envisioning the Sustainability Accelerator was to build on and amplify those strengths,” Sivas said.

The accelerators have already begun funding promising research teams from across the university. The Stanford Impact Labs has supported two rounds of one-year Impact Lab Design Fellows and two rounds of start-up Impact Labs that are applying research and evidence to real-world problems.

The IMA has issued eight rounds of funding, some focused on COVID-19 and one in collaboration with a rare disease foundation.

The Transforming Learning Accelerator has funded grants supporting quality K-12 educational systems during the pandemic, delivering high-quality learning experiences to college students globally and creating solutions for learners with disabilities. It has also recently announced its next funding opportunity, available to faculty across the university.

The Sustainability Accelerator hopes to recruit leadership and begin funding research teams after the school has been approved and launched.

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