What is the MRF Startup Collaboration?

Alongside receiving funding support for their own research via the Unfettered Research Grant, all Mistletoe Research Fellows also participate in a professional training program, the MRF Startup Collaboration. Each Fellow is assigned to one of three Areas of Collaboration (described further below in this FAQ): Sustainability, Autonomy/Mobility, or Civil Society. These areas function as learning communities and do not necessarily correspond to directly to the areas of your research or expertise. [COVID-19 Disclaimer : in 2020, due to a smaller cohort, the Areas of Collaboration will be combined]


In this program, Research Fellows collaborate with frontier technology hardware startups on an academic-year-long extracurricular team project structured and guided by the Foundation.  Each Research Fellow will expand their network by collaborating on a team project, meeting multiple startups in the community, and receiving support from mid-to-late career industry mentors with significant experience in technology implementation.  

Your MRF Startup Collaboration experience begins with attendance at the our onboarding "Match Workshop." [COVID-19 Disclaimer : in 2020, a single Virtual Match Workshop will be held from October 16-19th. This event replaces our typical in-person global Match Workshop events held in Singapore, Tokyo, and Silicon Valley].  At Match Workshops, Fellows will be onboarded, "match" to their team, and meet their community. The foundation provides support for all logistics, including travel and accommodation (in years where the workshop occurs in-person).

Following the Match Workshop, Research Fellows collaborate remotely via our Online Learning Community and work in small cross-disciplinary teams of three to four researchers. They learn to apply their knowledge to a specific science or technology problem that will help an early-stage startup further the development of a product or service. Structured like a course, this project creates a carefully designed professional learning opportunity for the Research Fellow to apply their knowledge to new domains,  strengthen their communication skills outside academia, and learn how to work in an interdisciplinary inter-institutional team. In turn, startups benefit from the domain-specific expertise and innovation potential of PhDs from different fields and different universities working together. 

All participating startups will have already built a fully functional product with humanitarian and social impact potential. While all the startups are considered early-stage, they have typically already been around for a couple years and have moved past the MVP (minimum viable product) stage of development, which may be little more than a prototype. Rather, an MRF Startup has already piloted and alpha or beta tested their product with some users. Some MRF Startups are already revenue-positive with paying customers. However, none of them have reached the point at which they are mass-scaling their product into the thousands. They have an early working product that can still needs some R&D refinement. Often they have found ONE path to functionality for their product that works, but is it the most efficient/appropriate one that current science and technology can offer? This window of opportunity is what we call our "MRF Sweet Spot," where MRF Startups and Mistletoe Research Fellows can collaborate together as co-learners in our accelerator, both developing their R&D management skills along the way.


What is the time commitment for a Mistletoe Research Fellowship?

Mistletoe Fellows are expected to commit roughly 100 hours to their Startup Collaboration Project, beginning in late August. The project can be spread over two semesters but must be completed by May of the academic calendar year. On average, the required time commitment is a few hours a week. Fellows may also choose to participate in optional seminars or other learning and networking opportunities.  After participating in a required three-day summer workshop funded by the foundation, Mistletoe Fellows use our robust online platform to collaborate with their team.

Project teams are given the flexibility to decide as a group to complete their project in a shorter time period by committing more hours up front or to spread their commitment evenly over the course of the academic year. Team members work with a Community Mentor (described in more detail further in this FAQ to determine a schedule for project conception, development, check-ins and deliverables that can be adjusted as appropriate and necessary.

How do Mistletoe Fellows get assigned to teams?

Shortly following their acceptance into the program, Mistletoe Research Fellowship recipients are given travel support and accommodation to attend a three-day Matching Workshop in July or August at which they will be onboarded into the program, form teams, match with a startup, and meet community mentors.

The first day of the workshop is a ‘pitch’ day in which startups and Community Host organizations  (described further in our FAQ) present pure knowledge problems to the Mistletoe Fellows. Participants then express their preferences and the Foundation's program team facilitates a final assignment which takes these preferences from both sides into account as much as possible.

The second and third days are hosted in conjunction with our Community Host and other volunteer partner organizations and focus on onboarding, best practices, design-thinking, technology implementation, and team-building.

What deliverables are expected as part of the Startup Collaboration? 

Mistletoe Fellows do not build products for startups but instead provide a resource that focuses on knowledge and expertise. Learning how to effectively apply knowledge and expertise to outside problems is a critical skill that we grow in our program. Prior to being matched to a Mistletoe Fellows team, the foundation works closely with each participating frontier startup to identify what we call a ‘Pure Knowledge Problem.


This is a puzzle that:

  • Emphasizes a clear scientific and technological advancement rather than a narrower commercial benefit.

  • Is most likely to be solvable using current scientific knowledge

  • Is of an appropriate scope (not too broad or too narrow) for a project of approximately 100 hours

These guidelines have been put in place to set clear expectations for all parties, protect PhD participants from ‘go-around employment,’ and to ensure that startups receive a meaningful engagement for their time and participation.

The Mistletoe Fellows team works with the startup to better understand the problem and then creates a deliverable in two parts: 1) One or more theoretical solutions that the startup may choose to test, experiment with, and implement and 2) One or more accompanying ‘knowledge base’ reports that describe the science and technology underlying possible solutions and help the startup to understand possible trade-offs, benefits, and challenges to implementation.

Here are some hypothetical illustrations of Pure Knowledge Problems that a team working with, for example, a water reclamation startup might be asked to work on:

  • Ideas for a filter mechanism that lets through particle A but not particle B.

  • Design ideas incorporating material compositions that might help the filter system withstand hot, dry, or cold conditions.

  • Ideas for making the filter system more energy efficient.

  • Designs to make the filter more modular so it can be more easily repaired.

  • Ideas for additions to the filter that might make it possible to use it to test for pollutants, infectious disease agents, or medical conditions.

What are 'frontier' tech startups and what are 'areas of collaboration' ? 

At Mistletoe, we support startups at the frontiers of knowledge, meaning that they work with technologies and scientific principles which have not yet reached mass-market commercial adoption and – as yet – lack a robust ecosystem to support their use. To be eligible for participation in Mistletoe Foundation programs, startups must have at least developed a fully functional pilot or MVP (minimum viable product) with the potential for humanitarian and social impact in one of our Areas of Collaboration.

Within our program, startups are divided into three ‘Areas of Collaboration’ we call Sustainability, Civil Society, and Autonomy/Mobility.

The Sustainability area promotes science and community-driven approaches to environmental sustainability. Topics include permaculture, sustainable consumption and recycling, cleaning pollutants and debris.

The Civil Society area addresses the development of solutions and platforms for disaster relief, civic participation, and skills-building. Topics also include emergency
response, remote collaboration and communication platforms, and building commons-based resources.

The Autonomy/Mobility area focuses on the design of products and services that empower independence, self-sufficiency, and geographical-movement at personal and community levels. Topics include off-grid solutions, personal mobility, human-centered design, remote education, and wellness/bioinformatics.

What resources and support are provided to Mistletoe Fellowship teams? 

Team collaboration is conducted exclusively on the foundation’s secure remote online learning platform, which offers robust protection for confidential data, as well as advanced features for communication, social networking, collaboration, and public/private spaces. There are also advanced community features which include public discussion boards, conversation forums, and individual profiles. Our Online Community Manager and Community Mentors closely manage and support the community.

Fellows receive extensive logistical, technical, and administrative support from our Foundation Team, which includes: Executive Director, Program and Fellowships Manager, Application and Grants Manager, Online Community Manager, the Technology Licensing Coordinator (primarily an educational role), Data Engineer, and Back-End Developer. Our platform provider also has its own technical support team.

The Mistletoe foundation provides funding support for all travel, accommodations and logistics associated with Matching Workshop.

Each team is advised by a Community Mentor who checks in regularly, offers suggestions, and serves as a sounding board. Typically, community mentors are professionals from the non-profit or venture communities with significant experience in technology implementation. Mentors volunteer their time to the foundation and are a critical part of our success.

Each Area of Collaboration is also served by a Community Host, a non-profit partner organization that supports our mentors, hosts periodic online ‘town meetings,’ and co-hosts the Matching Workshop. Community Host organizations have representatives on the foundation’s board and receive other non-pecuniary benefits for their participation.

What happens if a participating startup wishes to work together with a Mistletoe Fellow or with a partner University outside of the program?

The Mistletoe Foundation does not bar or restrict fellowship recipients and startups from collaborations, employment, or other types of contracts outside of the auspices of the fellowship program. Similarly, participating universities are welcome to make available information about university programs that may be open to startups, such as accelerators, resource-access agreements, or patent-licensing programs.

It is our hope that the Mistletoe Research Fellowship may serve as a bridge helping to link the academic and entrepreneurial communities.

Note: Any outside collaborations or agreements between Fellows and startups should be in accordance with the policies of participating universities.


The Mistletoe Foundation is not liable for any agreements reached outside the scope of the program.

How does intellectual property work for the Startup Collaboration? 

Mistletoe Research Fellows encompasses two programs to support the foundation’s mission of promoting scientific advancement for the public good. While each Fellow participates in both programs, their activities are distinct. The Unfettered Research Grant is applied to a Fellow’s university research activities. The Startup Collaboration is a separate off-campus extracurricular program administrated by the foundation and conducted exclusively on our online learning platform and our off-site matching workshop.

We ask Mistletoe Fellows to sign an agreement that research activities conducted for their Startup Collaboration training must be distinct from a fellow’s other research activities and cannot overlap with the specific areas addressed by their existing university or grant research commitments. It is a facet of our professional development program and the interdisciplinary structure of our project teams that Fellows should have an opportunity to expand the application of their knowledge, particularly if they have been working within a narrow band of expertise.

The handling of patentable discoveries or inventions arising from the Startup Collaboration falls under the purview of the Mistletoe Foundation’s intellectual property policies, detailed below.

In the course of the Startup Collaboration component of their fellowship, Mistletoe Fellows PhD teams do not build products but they do contribute theoretical solutions, ideas, and a knowledge base in the hopes that they can help a startup to solve a ‘Pure Knowledge Problem.’ The startup is then responsible for providing material resources and know-how, meaning to devise, test, and build the physical mechanism that incorporates abstract ideas, whether contributed by the PhD fellows or by their own engineers.

We recognize that the vast majority of the time, putting theoretical solutions into practice will rely on knowledge that is publicly available or which may already have been patented by another party. However, it is sometimes possible that in a successful collaboration, one or more of the ideas proposed by a PhD Fellow could be one of many incorporated into a design that could become part of a patent specification.

To provide guidelines and manage expectations for the appropriation and governance of patentable innovations that might arise in the course of a Mistletoe Research Fellowship, all participants in the fellowship community are asked to participate in the Foundation’s intellectual property policy, called the Community IP Agreement. These parties include PhD Fellows, startups, community partners, and the Mistletoe Foundation.

In a nutshell, the Community IP agreement:

• Asks all co-inventors to assign commercial IP rights to the startup, recognizing that it is the startup that must contribute material resources and time towards manufacturing a product, designing a process, or developing a composition of matter in service of its social or humanitarian mission.

• Mistletoe Foundation’s policies stipulate that NO University Owned Physical Resources are to be used in the course of a Startup Collaboration except by explicit written permission and that there are no required material contributions by the university.

• We ask that PhD fellows be listed as co-inventors on any patents filed on the basis of the theoretical solutions that they contribute, in accordance with the law.

• In the event that the Mistletoe Research Fellowship leads to a patentable discovery, startups are asked to provide a royalty free internal R&D license to other participating startups in the interests of helping each other to fulfill their humanitarian and social goals.

The agreement seeks to protect the interests and considerations of all parties in equal measure and to align the expectations and incentives of each party with the foundation’s mandate as a public benefit nonprofit corporation to advance science and technology for the public good.


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