Innovation Scholars program offers doctoral students entrepreneurial experience

The Accel Innovation Scholars (AIS) program — a yearlong program that seeks to introduce engineering doctoral students to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — will offer its second iteration starting this July, shortly after the initiative’s inaugural class graduates from the program.

Inspired by the successful Mayfield Fellows Program’s work with undergraduates, the AIS program creators wanted to build an equally compelling program for Ph.D. students, according to Tina Seelig Ph.D. ’85, executive director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP).

Anaïs Saint-Jude M.A. ’03 Ph.D. ’11, special projects designer at STVP, explained that the program is directed not only at students who want to start a company but also at those who do not already have experience with formal leadership.

“Entrepreneurship is a life skill [which] will benefit anybody who dives into it,” Saint-Jude said.

“We would be delighted if [the scholars] chose to become faculty at a university,” she added. “This [year’s] group was a mixed group … and we had varying levels of expertise across the scholars.”

Tommy DiRaimondo M.S. ’12 Ph.D. ’14, one of this year’s scholars, said that he had applied to the program in order to expand his knowledge about startups, based in part on the desire to learn how to commercialize a product he invented during his Ph.D. When his Ph.D. work went faster than he anticipated, he ended up founding his company — Sitari Pharma — while still participating in AIS.

“I’ve really benefitted [from AIS] by becoming a better leader and communicator,” DiRaimondo said. “It’s really helped me so far in the startup environment.”

On the other hand, Victor Miller M.S. ’11 Ph.D. ’16, another scholar, said he had considered going into academia rather than the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“[Faculty jobs] are traditionally very far from entrepreneurship, but when you think about what professors do, it’s super entrepreneurial,” Miller said. “[They] have to be creative and resourceful.”

Miller argued that AIS has not only given him practical entrepreneurship-related tools but also developed his ability to be resourceful. He explained that the program helped him become more comfortable working at the intersection of different disciplines.

“Those attitudes will permeate through whatever I end up doing,” he said.

According to Seelig and Saint-Jude, the program is designed with the goals, perspectives and schedules of Ph.D. students in mind. It begins with an intensive week that focuses on building the cohort and introducing students to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ecosystem before structuring activities and weekly meetings between the scholars for the following three quarters.

During fall quarter the group will visit and meet with senior executives at law firms, startups and venture capital firms. These leaders, usually CEOs or vice presidents, will present living case studies for which the scholars, grouped in small teams, will try to find solutions.

In winter quarter, scholars will be paired with company-leading coaches based on their backgrounds, and after assessing the challenges facing that firm, the students will lead a session to present their findings and solutions to the coaches and their fellow scholars.

“The companies are totally blown away that [the scholars] are able to think so clearly about the problems [the companies] are facing,” Seelig said. “In several cases, [the companies] may have tweaked their strategy based on… our students.”

Sessions in spring quarter will take place on campus and focus on entrepreneurial leadership. As an optional summer addition to the program, scholars can choose to pursue an internship at a startup through the AIS program.

Throughout the program, the students craft their “professional happiness design” — in other words, their AIS Ph.Ds.

“[This is] the opportunity for them to reflect on what they’re learning and to build a framework to navigate their career,” Saint-Jude said.

Miller explained that students with deep technical backgrounds and an interest in taking technologies outside the lab in order to make a difference are best suited for the program.

“These experiences were really good for Ph.D. students, because we typically don’t do anything but our own research,” Miller said. “It’s really nice to realize that a lot of the skills that we’ve been working on developing in graduate school and before are actually applicable to all these problems.

 

Contact Silviana Ciurea Ilcus at smci ‘at’ Stanford ‘dot’ edu.