The Launchpad

Creating conditions for ideas to flourish.

May 2023

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Illustration of a doctor tossing a light bulb

Illustration: James Yang

I was at a conference at a certain university across the Bay when I witnessed a basic misunderstanding of, well, basic research. (Much as I’d like to blame Cal, the host institution had nothing to do with it.) 

One of the attendees was a doctoral student who studied fly eyes. Why on earth? another participant wanted to know. Was there a point to it? Would it, for example, give you an insight into human eyes that might advance medical treatment?

No, the grad student allowed, slightly cringing as his professional raison d’être was flayed before a group of strangers. He found importance and beauty in the eye of a fly. He wanted to know.

One of the best things about working at a university is that you meet the kind of people who study fly eyes. Who seek to understand how snails crawl. Who examine poetry or painting for greater meaning. As George Mallory reportedly said when asked why he kept trying to summit Mount Everest: Because it’s there.

And then there’s the challenge in the middle: research that could have real-world impact if only it could get there. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are scholars whose work has direct and rapid application beyond the academy. A search engine. A new play. A COVID test.

And then there’s the challenge in the middle: research that could have real-world impact if only it could get there. A potential drug for celiac disease. A gamified assessment for dyslexia that can test a classroom of children in the time it takes an educator to assess one student. A public health approach to wildfire management that focuses on quantifying risk reduction. 

Stanford has developed four “accelerators” to try to bridge the gap—one each for medicines, social impact, sustainability, and learning. They help professors work with industry, government, and nonprofit partners; provide professional expertise that may be necessary to surmount regulatory, technical, or logistical hurdles; and underwrite projects so that scholars can try out, refine, and scale concepts. We invite you to learn more about how Stanford is helping launch ideas into the broader world

If you’re more keen to think about the marketplace of ideas than how ideas reach the marketplace, we have an excerpt from dean Jenny Martinez’s memo to the Law School community about the principles of free speech and academic freedom on campus, as well as the distinction between permissible counter-speech and sustained, disruptive heckling. As universities nationwide continue to grapple with these and related topics, we’ve pulled together an online collection of our articles and columns on campus speech, dating back to 2003. Through the links on this page, you can immerse yourself in the issues.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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