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Igniting Innovation

The TomKat Center’s flagship program reaches 10 years.
The TomKat Center community feted the 10-year anniversary of the Innovation Transfer Program.  PHOTO Mark Shwartz

Alumni and friends of the Innovation Transfer Program gathered last Thursday to celebrate a decade of sustainability solutions. Created by Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, the grant program helps awardees to develop early concepts into commercial breakthroughs. 

More than 100 teams and 264 members of the Stanford community have participated in the program over the years—four of whom spoke at the Shriram Center for the anniversary event. Others shared their entrepreneurial journeys through video appearances. 

Chris Hopper, Aurora Solar CEO with model
Chris Hopper, cofounder and CEO of Aurora Solar stands with a lidar-inspired model in the program's 10-year video. PHOTO: Evan Shwartz

Chris Hopper, MBA ’13, is cofounder and CEO of Aurora Solar, the world’s leading software for solar panel sales and design. In 2013, his team was one of the first to receive an Innovation Transfer Grant. Today, the company is valued at $4 billion and clients use the platform to design nearly 100,000 photovoltaic installations every month. 

“It was always the dream, but it’s surreal to see that we’ve gotten here. It makes that support from TomKat all the more significant, because frankly, without that early support, I don’t know if we would be here,” Hopper says. “The last 10 years have been exciting, but I can’t wait for what the next 10 years are going to bring.” 

“Beyond the university walls”

The TomKat Center was established in 2009 with a $40 million gift from Tom Steyer, MBA ’83, and Kat Taylor, JD/MBA ’86, with the mission of advancing sustainable energy for the betterment of all. By fall 2013, the center had begun awarding its first grants from the Innovation Transfer Program. 

From the start, the program’s aim was to speed up the translation of academic discoveries into measurable change in the world, according to Vice Provost of Graduate Education Stacey Bent, who was the center’s inaugural director who helped launch the program.

“What we wanted to do is help move some of the innovations being developed at Stanford in the area of sustainable energy out beyond the university walls,” she says.

The grants, with typical durations of 6 to 12 months, allow Stanford students and researchers to develop prototypes, conduct customer and market trials, and refine business plans, all with the goal of determining the viability of their products or services. Each Innovation Transfer Grant is different because each team faces different challenges. 

Now a decade later, these startups are taking on some of the thorniest problems facing humanity, including wildfires, energy storage, food justice, sustainable plastic, renewable energy, affordable housing, and all the places where these issues cross paths. The ventures have proven themselves to be an exceptional investment. The TomKat Center’s initial funding of $6.2 million in grants has led to $1.73 billion in external follow-on funding.

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Current TomKat Innovation Transfer Program metrics and successes

“One of the secrets to the success of the program is that it’s open to the entire campus community, from undergrads to tenured faculty,” says current center director Matthew Kanan, an associate professor of chemistry. “We don’t have any preconceived notions of where the best ideas will come from.”

For example, the very first TomKat-supported venture to be acquired was led by Stanford sophomores. 

Andrew Ponec, ’17, a serial entrepreneur and two-time grant recipient, was one of these undergrads. 

“There was absolutely a period of time when we were still working on the device where we had exhausted our own personal money and whatever we could get from friends and family,” he says of their solar invention that replaced the traditional junction box of photovoltaic panels, reducing hardware costs by 20 percent. 

Dragonfly Systems cofounders with TomKat leadership
Dragonfly Systems cofounders (l to r) Darren Hau and Andrew Ponec celebrated with the TomKat Center’s leadership team. (Matt Kanan, Danica Sarlya, Elizabeth Irino, and Brian Bartholomeusz) PHOTO: Mark Shwartz

“The big angel investors told us they were still a bit hesitant. They said, ‘Oh, man. We’d love to see this get a couple steps further.’ And that was exactly when we were able to get the grant from the TomKat Center.”

Ponec says their progress thanks to the Innovation Transfer Grant is what pushed investors to jump. In 2014, Dragonfly Systems was acquired by SunPower, a solar energy company—the first of six TomKat Center grantees to be acquired in the past decade. 

Yet the TomKat leadership team points out that the center is not an accelerator or an incubator, even with its proximity to Silicon Valley’s venture capital firms. 

“Proposals are not evaluated through a VC lens,” emphasizes Brian Bartholomeusz, PhD ’85, executive director of the Innovation Transfer Program since it began. 

Instead he likens the center to a concierge service, connecting students to internal and external resources and a network of industry experts, coaches, alumni, and interns. 

“What is paramount is that the teams have some sense of product-market fit and have undertaken customer discovery,” he says.

Startup survival

Over the years, these cofounders have spoken with thousands of prospective end users. They’ve rigged up wind tunnels in rented warehouse space, schlepped trash bags full of edible kelp on airlines, and restored habitat in deserts that reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.  

Their efforts are cleaning up long-haul trucking fleets, keeping the lights on in Nigeria, and providing dignified housing for refugees in Jordan and for citizens here in the United States, to name only a few examples. 

“We want applicants to seek solutions to clearly defined problems, as opposed to solutions in search of problems, as is sometimes the case,” says Bartholomeusz.

For winning applicants, they say the program has been transformative. 

“I cannot say enough good things about the TomKat Center. They have been critical to bridging the gap between a great idea and an investable idea,” says Daniel Burrows, MBA ’16, CEO and founder of TruckLabs, a smart aerodynamic device for semi-trucks, and a 2015 grant recipient. 

Jayce Hafner, MS/MBA ’19, is cofounder and CEO of FarmRaise, a startup that is making financing accessible for farmers.

“That’s what’s so cool about what TomKat did,” she says, of the 2020 grant. “It gave us funding to prove out our hypothesis and get to the next level so that we really could have a shot at growing this company in the biggest, most impactful way.” 

Sometimes what the grant buys for cofounders is time: More runway to interview end users, another month to experiment, iterate, and see if their business will float. 

Other times the grant literally buys spare parts and equipment, the types of expenses that students and young alumni can rarely buy out of pocket: catalysts and solvents, CNC routers, and repeat trips to Home Depot. Or a pilot project with a partnering organization. Or consulting services, such as compiling a detailed process model or hiring a UX/UI design engineer, so the business case can speak for itself to investors. 

Community as capital

While TomKat funding allows the teams to road-test their innovations, the center’s support extends beyond the grant. As the startups gain traction, entrepreneurs can get help recruiting summer interns and leverage the collective knowledge of past awardees and the center’s vast network.

“The TomKat Center intern program was instrumental to building our company and bringing it to where it is now,” says Luke Raymond, PhD ’13, cofounder of Airity Technologies, a power electronics company and 2016 grant recipient. Over the years, Airity has hosted five undergraduate interns through the center.

How far a venture can travel is linked to who walks alongside the founders in the earliest days, shares Zweli Mfundisi, MBA ’22, cofounder and CEO of Empowered Homes. The 2020 grant recipient is helping South Africans gain access to alternative energy solutions.

He recently shared on LinkedIn: “Brian Bartholomeusz is the most prolific ecosystem builder I have ever seen and a true champion for the cleantech entrepreneur community!” 

The TomKat Center’s fall social gathered alumni and friends who are working at the intersection of sustainable energy with food, water, health, transportation, and the environment. PHOTOS: Mark Shwartz

For Etosha Cave, MS ’11, PhD ’15, cofounder and chief science officer of Twelve, a venture that is converting captured CO2 into chemical commodities previously made from fossil fuels, she says the 2014 Innovation Transfer Grant was their big break. 

“The money was great, but the mentorship was even more valuable,” Cave says. She and cofounder Kendra Kuhl, PhD ’13, met their third cofounder at Twelve, Nicholas Flanders, MBA/MS ’13, through a TomKat networking event. 

“Being part of the TomKat Center is like being part of a family.” 

To any students who want to move their innovation beyond the lab and are considering applying for a grant, she says: “Do it. There is really no down side.”

Watch these videos to learn more about the Innovation Transfer Program and what awardees have accomplished.

This article is part of the TomKat Center Spotlight series designed to highlight the impact and trajectory of the work of faculty and students who received funding through our Innovation Transfer Program, TomKat Solutions, and Graduate Fellowships. Stanford University does not endorse any non-Stanford entities, programs, products, or services listed in the article.