This fall, the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy welcomed its first cohort of graduate fellows, a new program aimed at moving innovations out of the lab and into the wilds of the real world.
The fellowships are designed to dovetail into the center’s Innovation Transfer Program, which supports Stanford entrepreneurs as they launch sustainable technologies. That program has a record of success over the past six years, with $4.8 million in grant awards that led to $325 million in investments from outside the university, three acquisitions, and 60 new companies, 23 of which are generating revenue today.
But the center saw a gap—and an opportunity.
“We wanted to create a chance for people to focus their research toward meaningful applications—without having to take the jump and say, ‘I’m going to start a company,’” says Matt Kanan, center co-director and associate professor of chemistry.
“Very often in energy-related research, students are trained to dream big—and this is a good thing,” he says, but for a lab discovery to have transformative power, he continues, it needs a champion to move that idea forward in everyday ways. Progress is often incremental and the journey from a research finding to a commercial product can be long.
“We are at a critical point in determining the world’s future, with climate change, plastics pollution, and the pandemic, among other scientific and societal crises.” says Jen Dionne, center co-director and associate professor of materials science and engineering. “We believe the Stanford community and our doctoral students, especially, can spur positive change.”
The center hopes to empower graduate students to focus on advancing their research toward a product, taking the next critical steps that will determine the path forward while still benefiting from Stanford resources that abound to support them.
On this point, doctoral candidate Nathan Ratledge is insightful, as he is a participant in both of the center programs. In 2019, he received an Innovation Transfer grant for his electric mobility startup in sub-Saharan Africa, called Anza. This year, he is also one of the three inaugural graduate fellows. His economic research with Professor Marshall Burke is focused on measuring the causal effects of electricity access in low-income countries.
“This is traditionally a very challenging question, where machine learning can provide critically important insights,” he explains.
Ratledge says the Innovation Transfer grant was critical to launching the company, providing a springboard for hard tech and market research—the stuff of a sustainability startup. He sees the graduate fellowships as supporting the students more directly.
“To really stretch the frontier of clean energy development, you need ‘both/and,’” says Ratledge. “You need resources in order to build the tech development, but you also need time. That’s the biggest thing.”
The typical Stanford doctoral student is juggling a swirl of demands: a thesis to write, research to do, classes to attend or TA, and perhaps a side job or a family to raise. The fellowship allows a way to explore a promising idea with slightly less noise or anxiety about finding funding.
What’s more, not everyone has the desire to become an entrepreneur. The 2020–21 fellows are advancing research across a spectrum of academic fields, using hardware development, data mapping, and applied economics. Some of the projects may lead to commercial products or services; others may live in the public domain for free.
Kanan says he hopes the TomKat fellowship program becomes a way to ground pie-in-the-sky ideas, to nurture flutters of inspiration, and incubate them at Stanford during the critical early days—in this environment that is conducive for growth. Then set them loose.
“The problems we are interested in are so big that entire industries would have to change in order to solve them,” he says. “Innovations generated on campus need time to be tested and refined, and often times completely reconfigured, if they are going to have a chance to create disruptive change.”
“By giving graduate students the time and freedom to focus on these translational goals, we hope to ultimately help them increase the impact of their innovations.”
Who: Tuofei (Francis) Chen, MS ’19, PhD candidate | Electrical Engineering
What: Designing an electricity inverter to modernize the grid.
Where: Stanford, California. With labs closed due to COVID-19, Chen brought the bench to his bedroom, with an oscilloscope, multimeters, and a thermal camera right in his apartment.
Why: It is the coming calamity that no one is talking about. The steady, stable electrical grid in the United States is largely kept this way by fossil fuel generators. As renewable energy increasingly contributes to the grid, utilities need to find a way to keep electricity running at a steady 60 hertz and 120 volts even when the supply is variable—or else risk a whole city going dark. Chen’s bet is on inverters to take over this important job. He says it’s not glamorous work—not building a new photovoltaic or a battery, but it’s essential to making the whole operation work. He is developing a multi-level inverter that he hopes in the short term will improve photovoltaic system efficiency and in the long term will offer key insights for operating the future electrical grid.
“Really the grand vision is that we will be contributing a lot of know-how for designing a power electronics dominated grid in the future,” he says. As an international student from Shenzhen, China, Chen says finding dedicated funding for this research would have been a challenge without the TomKat fellowship, as federal grants tend to be limited to citizens.
Who: Anna-Katharina von Krauland, MS ’19, PhD candidate | Civil and Environmental Engineering, Atmosphere and Energy
What: Creating a highly detailed digital atlas of potential wind farm locations.
Where: Aarhus, Denmark. Currently, Krauland is studying abroad with a Danish expert in wind energy at Aarhus University for four months, while signing into Stanford classes with a nine-hour time difference.
Why: To accelerate the transition to renewable energy. She is also part of The Solutions Project, co-founded by her PhD advisor Professor Mark Jacobson, a nonprofit that is advancing the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2050.
“By building these maps and developing an online tool, I hope to make this data accessible and freely available to both small and large wind farm developers,” she says. “The goal is to shorten the siting process for new wind farms from being several weeks, months, or even years—down to several hours.”
Who: Nathan Ratledge, PhD candidate | Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources
What: Accelerating clean energy and electric mobility in sub-Saharan Africa.
Where: Currently Warrenton, Virginia, with his wife who is a high school history teacher and their two kids, ages 2 and 4; right now, every day is a juggle of Zoom meetings and nap schedules.
Why: Reliable, low-cost electricity is critical for economic development in low-income countries. He believes e-mobility is the single largest lever to simultaneously reducing transportation costs, improving urban air quality, avoiding climate emissions, and providing new utility revenue, which is needed to finance grid extensions and improvements.
“To get the company off the ground, you really have to provide the whole ecosystem. You need vehicles. You need charging. And you need financing,” he says. “One of the reasons we’re super motivated to pull this off is to show how quickly lower-income countries can move with clean energy, because they don’t have the incumbent infrastructure that we do. They can totally leapfrog us.”