If there was any comfort for Chaitan Khosla in learning his 3-year-old had celiac disease, it was in finally understanding the reason for his little boy’s debilitating pain. This was in 1999, and the disease—an immune response to gluten that wreaks havoc on the small intestine—had no drug treatment.
But Khosla, then an assistant professor, was in a position to try to do something about that. Virtually simultaneous to the diagnosis, the chemical engineer and chemist had received the National Science Foundation’s top award for early-career researchers and, with it, funds for new research. He dove in. An insight into a potential protein therapy was not long in coming. “This fall our son . . . started first grade,” Khosla wrote to celiac research supporters in 2002. “I have a dream that when he goes to college in the fall of 2014, he takes with him a refillable prescription for a pill he can take whenever he finds himself in a situation where he cannot avoid, or does not wish to avoid, a gluten-containing meal.”
“Oh my gosh, how wrong I was,” Khosla says, looking back. Today, he is a full professor, his son is five years out of college, and there is still no medication for celiac disease. Although Khosla and his collaborators created the basis of two promising therapies in the ’00s, those breakthroughs were just the start of long quests for funding, development, and approval. With luck, he says, the first of the two drugs will begin large-scale clinical testing next year. Yet even with this generational time lag, Khosla considers himself fortunate: “For every one project that even gets a shot, there are 10 stories at Stanford that are at least as interesting and as potentially transformative at an equivalent stage that don’t even write the first chapter.”
It’s a ratio he hopes to transform as faculty director of the Innovative Medicines Accelerator. The IMA is one of four new “accelerators” at Stanford designed to help academics convert their research findings into products, policies, and medicines in the broader world. The others are the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, which seeks scalable solutions to improve outcomes for learners at all stages of life; Stanford Impact Labs, whose mission is to put social science to work for society; and the latest addition, the Sustainability Accelerator, a launchpad for technology and policies that tackle Earth’s growing environmental challenges.
The cross-the-divide problem is perhaps most familiar in the field of drug development. The chasm between the lab bench and clinical testing, let alone the marketplace, is so vast, the costs so high, the odds so low, it’s often lamented as the Valley of Death. To boost the chances that promising projects will successfully traverse the valley, the IMA provides researchers with a range of resources, from partnerships with investors to a staff of industry-trained scientists with translational skills rarely found in academia. “We want to get to the point where it’s the norm for the faculty to take the hypothesis into the first test in patients within seven to eight years,” says Khosla. For the second of his celiac treatments, it took him twice that long to get that far.
Medicine may have first dibs on the nickname, but researchers stand on the brink of valleys of death across the academy. Labs aren’t companies, professors aren’t necessarily entrepreneurs, and insights aren’t assurances of impact. Dan Schwartz, faculty director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, once tried to create an app for widespread use that was based on his research into having children improve their scientific reasoning by “teaching” AI-animated characters. The data from a homegrown edition of the app were compelling, grant funding was secured, and colleagues’ support was high, but the project ended up mired in problems with software development. Schwartz, who is also the dean of the Graduate School of Education, doesn’t have the time, funds, or technical know-how to revive it. “Do you remember the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark?” he says. “They found the tablets, and they get put away in this giant warehouse as just yet another artifact. That happens a lot. We do great stuff that should make a difference, but we don’t know how to get it out there to make a difference.” By providing researchers in a range of fields with new tools, funding, community, and professional support, the accelerators aim for happier endings.
‘Do you remember the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? They found the tablets, and they get put away in this giant warehouse as just yet another artifact. That happens a lot.’
The IMA, says executive director Elizabeth Ponder, PhD ’09, works like a nonprofit biotech company integrated on the Stanford campus. Its scientists and staff develop and cover the costs of executing detailed workplans to advance projects that meet its criteria of high scientific innovation and unmet medical need, even if those projects represent more risk and less profit than private investment would tolerate. The goal, Ponder says, is not to make yet another statin for the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have high cholesterol. Although therein lies profit, therein also lies plenty—more than a half dozen statins are already on the market. The IMA is far more interested, she says, in addressing the innumerable conditions that have no treatment at all.
By design, the accelerators operate broadly across the campus, rather than in narrow disciplinary lanes. Jennifer Cochran, chair of the department of bioengineering, has feet in two of them. By training, she is a molecular engineer known for developing protein-based medicines—she has a potential ovarian cancer treatment in clinical trials—and brings that expertise to the IMA as the faculty lead on protein therapeutics. More recently, her research focus has expanded from “people health” to “planet health,” as she calls it. “The atoms and molecules don’t really care what the applications are,” Cochran says. “We can use the same tools and technologies we use to make medicines to instead make products and solutions that are related to climate and sustainability.”
That has led to a collaboration with postdoc Nikita Khlystov, MS ’18, PhD ’20, a chemical engineer who is evolving microbes to produce enzymes that are better and better at breaking down plastic, with an initial focus on polyester. Each year, factories produce tens of millions of tons of the fabric, a nonbiodegradable, oil-based material that typically ends its useful life in landfills or incinerators. But when these enzymes are applied to poly-cotton blends, they separate the polyester from the cotton, allowing both to be reused. The polyester reduces into a white powder that can be reconstituted without the hydrocarbons needed to make new polyester. “Enzymes evolved to have catalytic properties over millions of years,” Cochran says. “We’re doing that on a scale of months. It’s Darwinian selection in a test tube.”
STANFORD IMPACT LABS
To enable teams of Stanford scholars to work with the public, social, and private sectors to tackle social problems using human creativity, rigorous evidence, and innovative technology
● Fellowships for faculty, postdocs, and doctoral students that enable them to collaborate with external partners to address social problems
● Staged investment in proposed solutions: first, developing a research-practitioner partnership, then testing and iterating, followed by amplifying the impact
● A new interdisciplinary undergraduate major in data science and social systems
● A collaboration between the European Central Bank and Stanford and Columbia researchers to “see through” tax havens, informing central bank and regulatory responses
● A partnership between Stanford scholars and the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise initiative to test ways of helping various communities (e.g., older adults, teens, immigrants) sort fact from fiction
For more: impact.stanford.edu
In fact, there are more than test tubes involved, which is why the Sustainability Accelerator’s support has been vital. Cochran’s lab received one of the largest amounts in the accelerator’s initial round of grants awarded last year, which enabled the purchase of essential lab equipment such as a bioreactor and a robotic liquid handler. Khlystov expects the effort to spin off as a start-up within the year, a speed of development he says would have otherwise been impossible. Indeed, without the accelerator’s financial help—which followed a boost from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment—Cochran says she wouldn’t have the means to do the work at all, in part because of her limited track record in the area. “If it wasn’t for the Sustainability Accelerator, and the Woods funding before that, we would not be working on this project,” she says. “It would have been challenging to secure funding from traditional sources to branch out into new research directions, particularly related to the convergence of biology and sustainability, which is an underexplored research area. This is why programs like these are critically needed.”
‘A Shift in Culture’
Stanford, of course, has long been a font for ideas that spring into the world. Cisco, Yahoo, and Google are just some of the obvious giants of the digital age born of work on campus. But many such crossovers are based on software, an industry where an idea that meets the moment can catch fire with relatively little capital, and where angel investors and venture capitalists are often eager to jump in. Stanford’s accelerators are looking to ease translation in areas with more resistance and often fewer incentives. “Stanford did just fine without a tech accelerator,” says the university’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “What we want to do is to look for places where people get stuck, where there are inefficiencies, where the progression of knowledge towards application really gets gummed up.”
Some such efforts were already in place when Tessier-Lavigne assumed the presidency in 2016—the School of Medicine, for instance, has long housed a center that brings medical discoveries into clinical practice and a program that facilitates academic-industry partnerships for drug development—but his arrival spurred momentum. In his inaugural speech, Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist and former biotech executive whose research has yielded treatments for degenerative brain diseases and spinal cord injuries, called for a more “purposeful university.” He described how laboratory insights into disease often got lost in translation for lack of specialized infrastructure. Remedying that would accelerate the time line of drug development from bench to bedside and could serve as a model for broader change. “Similar opportunities exist in other areas, and application isn’t confined to the hard sciences,” he said. “Could we further improve the translational process in those fields—and others—as well?” The idea of accelerating solutions was included in the school’s long-range vision, and the accelerators themselves emerged soon after.
While the accelerators have parallel goals, they are each tailored to confront different challenges. Stanford Impact Labs, for example, helps professors resolve the tension between two hard-to-reconcile identities: rigorous researcher and policy problem-solver. “That has been challenging at every phase of my career,” says SIL director Jeremy Weinstein, a professor of political science whose work has alternated between academia and government service. Traditionally, he says, professors who thought they might have solutions to pernicious problems have often been reluctant to get deep into policy lest it influence their ability to hold the problems at arm’s length for unbiased study.
That disconnect often means that those with their hands on the levers of policy don’t always have the most thoroughly thought-out ideas, and those with the deepest analysis don’t have direct access to events on the ground, which could inform their science. But, Weinstein says, an increasing number of social scientists are rethinking this dichotomy. He describes Stanford Impact Labs as a research and development pipeline that crosses that gap, allowing social scientists, working in tandem with external partners, to test ideas in action. SIL invests in teams to design, test, and scale proposed solutions. It places professors in sabbatical-year positions in the public and social sectors. And it runs a fellowship program that trains faculty to map out the path from science to impact. “Our researchers are really good at knowing how to do science,” Weinstein says. “They don’t always have strong instincts about what it means to produce science that is used by the end user, who they’re trying to influence.”
INNOVATIVE MEDICINES ACCELERATOR
To accelerate the translation of Stanford research discoveries into new medicines while expanding our knowledge of human biology
● Support for research projects aimed at testing hypotheses in human subjects that, if validated, have the potential to pave the road to new medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics or to enhance clinical use of existing ones
● Staff assistance with protocol development, project management, clinical trial database creation and testing, clinical research coordination, monitoring, operations, and regulatory activities
For more: ima.stanford.edu
So far, nearly 40 faculty have been through the yearlong fellowship program, and SIL is designing parallel opportunities for community groups as well as for state and local policymakers, says Misan Rewane, ’07, SIL’s executive director. “We’re building out the supply of people to do this work,” she says.
Unlike many philanthropic foundations, Rewane says, the accelerator is not just funding a singular course of action, and it understands that no two projects follow identical pathways. One of SIL’s projects is led by professor of medicine Stephen Luby. In 2011, Luby was in Bangladesh as part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team analyzing the country’s high, often deadly rates of childhood pneumonia. Luby had suspected pathogens were the main culprit, but a two-year study laid much of the blame on air pollution. And that, in turn, drew an arrow to the black carbon particulates that spew from the country’s thousands of unregulated kilns used in brick manufacturing.
Initially, Luby says, he perceived the challenge as a mix of public health, political, and technical problems. With partners at Stanford and in Bangladesh, he began using satellite data to pinpoint the number of kilns in the country, quantifying the harm to health, and providing public information that could yield political change. As the team worked, Luby says, he increasingly appreciated the social context of the problem, including the motivations of the brick manufacturers. They don’t want to be pariahs, he says, but they also can’t afford $5,000 pollution scrubbers. The game changer, he says, was a $500,000 grant from SIL that allowed his group to develop an approach that would hold sway on the ground. SIL’s money funded a 30-oven field study last year that suggests that no- and low-cost steps—like stacking unbaked bricks in a configuration that improves airflow and increasing the ash used to insulate the kiln—result in less coal use, a greater percentage of high-quality bricks, and less pollution. It’s the kind of powerful but mostly painless approach that’s imperative for success in a country where poverty and weak governance mean little chance of enforcing expensive remedies, Luby says. Sixty percent of the kiln operators in the field study have continued the tested approaches. “Our biggest proponents are now brick kiln owners,” he says. The team is currently conducting a 300-kiln trial to demonstrate findings at a larger scale.
Reducing particulates from kilns would be no minor matter for Bangladesh—or for the globe, Luby says. Annual gas emissions from brick kilns in South Asia are equal to the climate impact generated by the entire American passenger car fleet. SIL provided not only financial support to tackle this problem, he says, but also new ways to conceive of the situation and an urgency to keep iterating. There’s always the repeated question of “what’s next” in his quarterly calls with SIL leaders. “In traditional academia, you never have to work on solutions,” he says. “You can just define problems and talk about how deep difficult problems are. You can get a PhD doing that, you can get tenure, you can get awards and retire never having done anything about solutions.
“The shift to the accelerator is a shift in culture, a shift in focus, and I think it is badly needed.”
STANFORD ACCELERATOR FOR LEARNING
To leverage the revolution in brain and learning sciences, data, and technology and to collaborate across disciplines and with partners to bring scalable and equitable solutions to all learners
● Support for research and design projects within five initial areas of concentration: digital learning, early childhood, learning differences, workforce learners, and underserved learners
● Digital learning design challenges, project funding, and industry on-ramps for students
● A video coaching program on responsive, supportive caregiving to improve developmental outcomes for children from birth to age 5, implemented worldwide in settings from childcare to pediatric clinics to home visitation programs
● A framework developed by researchers and educators to improve educational opportunities and economic mobility for employed Americans without college degrees
For more: acceleratelearning.stanford.edu
Psychology professor Greg Walton, ’00, and his team also received $500,000 from SIL, in their case to expand research on an intervention for youth who’ve been in juvenile detention—a stigmatized population with depressing recidivism rates. The work of Walton and his collaborators suggests such students fare much better if they write a one-page letter introducing themselves to a teacher and asking for support as they return to school. In a field test in Oakland schools, recidivism was nearly 40 percentage points lower among students who wrote the letter compared with those who didn’t. “It’s about creating the same welcome or warmth or sense of belonging that others get automatically because they’ve never been in trouble,” says Hattie Tate, an administrator with the Oakland Unified School District who works at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center and is one of the partners on the project. “And so it changes the lens, and creates a new way of relating with students.”
The researchers have since expanded their research to districts in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Chicago. But as beguilingly simple as the intervention sounds, the legwork to systemically expand it is full of thorny procedural challenges: Each time, Walton says, researchers must negotiate the handling of parental consent, staff oversight, and the sharing of sensitive information between schools and researchers. The SIL grant—in addition to other funding—has given them room to hammer out the minutiae that can stop a program in its tracks. Funding has also helped the researchers develop similar interventions for refugees and for youth in foster care. “Problems that people are facing in the world are really rich spaces for learning,” Walton says. “We can understand things that we can’t understand when we’re in some kind of abstraction.”
Putting Ideas into Action
We live in a time of an explosion of accelerators, says Charles Eesley, an associate professor of management science and engineering who has studied the trend. But the version of accelerators most common outside academia—hotbeds for start-ups—is only partially germane to Stanford’s accelerators, where the end goal isn’t necessarily commercial success. In education, change in classrooms is often a consequence of new policy, and the Stanford Accelerator for Learning has hired scholars known for their effectiveness at crafting persuasive research that can be presented to policymakers.
Sometimes, a professor just has a solution to give away and needs help with the work that entails. Take Jason Yeatman, PhD ’14, an assistant professor in both the Graduate School of Education and the School of Medicine. Early in the pandemic, Yeatman, a cognitive neuroscientist whose lab studies dyslexia and reading development, was facing a quandary. Every child that came into his lab, he says, traditionally started with a two-hour, one-on-one assessment with a trained research coordinator—an expensive and time-consuming task, yet vital to assessing dyslexia. With lockdown, that became an impossibility, both for him and for schools where similar assessments are required. That prompted Yeatman’s lab to make an emergency dive into web development and new programming languages.
The eventual fruit of their efforts was ROAR—Rapid Online Assessment of Reading—a gamified testing platform whose results, to Yeatman’s surprise, correlated closely with in-person assessments without the expense, time, and proximity. Yeatman’s lab began testing it out with nearby districts, then expanded to 37 schools around the country, a number that is poised to soon double. “In 40 minutes, you can test an entire school,” says Marta Batlle, student services director for Woodside School District, where all students from kindergarten to eighth grade begin and end the school year with ROAR assessments. The ability to screen so many students in such a short amount of time at no cost helps educators quickly identify struggling readers, including those whose mild signs of dyslexia made them more likely to be overlooked when screenings were limited to one-on-one assessments, she says. That’s important for any district, she says, but the fact ROAR is free makes it particularly powerful for schools with fewer resources than her own. “This is revolutionary not only in the sense of the concept but also in breaking the equity gap that exists in education. This is going to be really big.” Over the next two years, Yeatman says he’s hoping hundreds of thousands—even millions—of kids will use ROAR. It’s a service to the schools, and a source of data for researchers in his lab and beyond.
Such growth brings its demands, including the need for expertise well beyond his lab’s. The Stanford Accelerator for Learning’s seed grant helped, but Yeatman may be most grateful for the shared resources it provides, such as IT professionals who consider how to store sensitive data, or lawyers he can loop in when a district sends him a 35-page privacy form. “I’m a scientist, not a lawyer,” Yeatman says. “The huge value of these accelerators is allowing academics, allowing scientists, to innovate at a scale that is not feasible otherwise.”
There is no way, of course, to ever assure that research succeeds in finding an application. Khosla, the founder of the IMA, knows that as well as anyone. In February, news broke that the pharmaceutical giant GSK—which had acquired the second of Khosla’s experimental celiac treatments in 2019—was shelving the project, reportedly out of concerns for its commercial fortunes amid a shifting regulatory landscape. “It’s a Mega Valley of Death,” Khosla says. “Every time you think you’ve made it to the other side, you realize there’s another valley.” But the accelerator can get ideas further along the journey.
To enable Stanford scholars and external partners worldwide to co-develop sustainability technology and policy solutions, with the goal of measurably improving the quality of human life and our planet
● Planning-stage, mid-scale, and large-scale funding for multidisciplinary projects
● Policy labs for students to learn how to provide cutting-edge analysis for policymakers and NGOs
● A collaboration between water managers, nonprofit leaders, environmental planners, and engineers that uses geophysical data to identify ways to quickly move water down from the surface to recharge or replenish the groundwater system
● A partnership with Pacific Island nations to assess and develop aquatic food systems in the interests of public health and food security
With IMA backing, Peter Kim, PhD ’86, a veteran biochemistry professor and former industry executive, set out to create a COVID vaccine that was cheap, effective against all tested strains, and easy to transport unrefrigerated, making it ideal for under-resourced countries. For related reasons, it was not a magnet for outside capital. The IMA stepped forward to fund experiments he could not have managed with a more typical grant, he says. Ultimately, the vaccine was licensed to a company for development.
The “secret sauce” of the IMA, Khosla says, may be its people. The accelerator has hired a cadre of top industry scientists who are steeped in the differing expectations for science in academia versus the for-profit world. Unlike the scholar, who is typically captivated by novel science and discovery, those in industry have up-front concerns about replicability: They need to know that experimental findings can be replicated at scale using familiar assays under standardized conditions independent of any expertise of the originating lab. The IMA’s scientists can help faculty do research—or conduct additional research themselves—that satisfies both worlds.
The ultimate demonstration of robustness is a prototype. Typically, an academic scientist’s concept for a drug or vaccine is based on results in a cell or a test tube involving a biological mechanism that may not be fully appreciated by an outside audience, even biotech experts. Prototyping builds the idea into a stripped-down version of a therapy that puts aside many of the ultimate questions any successful medicine must answer (how long a dose lasts, whether it can be ingested rather than injected, what side effects it causes, etc.) to address the core question: Does it have a positive effect on the targeted area in an animal model? It’s an expensive and difficult process for, say, a biologist who may lack the relevant chemistry expertise, but the result is the closest thing to a proof of concept, Kim says. The IMA’s scientists put that ability in professors’ reach. “Now the industrial scientist says, ‘Whoa, I know this model—that’s a pretty impressive result,’” Kim says. “Now I’m interested in working with these guys to see if we can turn it into a real drug.”
It’s early days for the IMA—and each of the accelerators—so it will take time to establish how effective they can be. The IMA is midway through a five-year pilot study to see how much value the accelerator adds, measuring the number and strength of ideas exiting Stanford for further development. It also matters how swift those exits are, says Khosla, harking back to his own experience. Ten or 15 years from now, he says, “I don’t want my colleagues who get enabled by the IMA to look back and say these are the time lines that they experienced.” The shorter the sequels to his celiac saga, the better.
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at email@example.com.