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 they do NOT necessarily correspond to directly to the areas of your research or expertise. The theme of the Area of Collaboration is used to group participating startups.  [COVID-19 Disclaimer : due to smaller cohort sizes during the pandemic, the Areas of Collaboration will be combined into a single Learning Community]. 


In this extracurricular training program, Research Fellows will collaborate with frontier technology hardware startups over the course of the academic year on a team project that is structured and guided by the Foundation. Each Research Fellow will expand their network by collaborating with team members from other disciplines and universities,  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 joining an onboarding "Match Workshop."  At Match Workshops, Research Fellows and Startup Fellows will be onboarded to the program, learn about each other and "match" to a team. You also meet the members of the foundation's larger global community. The foundation provides support for all logistics, including travel and accommodation.


[COVID-19 Disclaimer : during  the COVID pandemic there will be NO TRAVEL for onboarding. Our Virtual Match Workshop will be held from September 10-13. This event replaces our typical in-person global Match Workshop events held in Singapore, Tokyo, and Silicon Valley].

Following the Match Workshop, Research Fellows collaborate remotely via our Online Learning Community and work in small cross-disciplinary teams - usually four Research Fellows to a team. You will learn how to apply your PhD training and disciplinary knowledge to a intedisciplinary R&D challenge that will help an early-stage startup further the development of their existing product or service. Structured like a course, this project creates a professional learning opportunity for the Research Fellow to apply their knowledge to new domains,  learn how to collaborate with others outside their discipline,  strengthen their communication skills outside academia, and develop the project management skills necessary for a successful interdisciplinary inter-institutional team. In turn, MRF Startups benefit from the scientific problem-solving skills and innovation potential of PhDs from different fields and different universities working together. 

All participating  startups  are selected through a rigorous application process and they will come to MRF with a functional product, based on their proprietary innovations, that has the potential for humanitarian and social impact. While MRF Startups are considered early-stage, they have typically been active for a few years and will have moved past the MVP (minimum viable product) stage of development, which may be little more than a prototype. A typical MRF Startup has piloted and alpha or beta tested their product with some users. Some MRF Startups are already revenue-positive with paying customers. However, none of the MRF Startups will have reached the point at which they are mass-scaling their product into the thousands.


In a typical scenario the MRF startup has an early working product that can still benefit a lot from some R&D refinement - so there is room for your help in bringing an amazing product to communities that need it! What is most often the case is that the startup has found ONE path to functionality for their product that works but what is still unknown is whether this path is the most efficient/appropriate one? Is it the most energy efficient? Does it make use of the most appropriate materials that current science and technology can offer? Should the design be more modular in order to make the product more portable or easier to repair? This window of opportunity is what we call our "MRF Sweet Spot." The Sweet Spot allows MRF Startups and Mistletoe Research Fellows to collaborate together as co-learners in our accelerator, both developing their project management skills along the wayl


Is this a consulting program? Can I call myself a consultant? Will I be paid like one? 

Let's start with the simple answers. No, no, and no.


This is not a consulting engagement. You cannot and should not call yourself a consultant. You will not be compensated for consulting. Your Unfettered Research Grant is not a form of "payment" for offering your expertise. It is an investment in you and your potential. Similarly, the MRF Startup Collaboration is ALSO an investment in your professional development. 

But why not? I still think it sounds like consulting? We can see why, so let's explore further.

Similarly to a consultant, you will use your background and training to help a company solve a problem. However, that's where most of the similarities end. The MRF Startup Collaboration is a professional development and training program. Your PhD training has focused on building your discliplinary expertise. It DOES NOT typically include instruction in project management, communication, or even very many opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. THIS is the gap we're interested in.  It's hard to learn these skills effectively in a weekend workshop or an academic class. The best learning opportunity is provided in a team-based environment where you work together on a meaningful project. 


THIS is what we provide you in the MRF Startup Collaboration Program when you become part of a team of like-minded and intelligent peers with the opportunity to help a real-world startup do something good for the world. Maybe the startp is creating affordable 3D printed housing, or portable infant incubators that can be used in migrant camps. Maybe it's drones that can clean wind turbines, increasing their potential as a form of sustainable energy. These are all real examples of MRF Startups. 

The skills you build during your MRF Startup Collaboration experience are the kinds of skills that are needed today in a variety of career roles that can leverage the STEM expertise you've been developing as an academic scientist. Even within academia, Principal Investigators and heads of research groups need strong project management skills in order to succeed, manage lab projects and personnel, and win grants. 

That sounds amazing and I'm excited but I STILL think it sounds like consulting. Sure. Here's a little more background about what consulting is. 

While consultants may specialize in an industry, such as finance or healthcare, they are almost never top experts in a field because they aren't hired to be. Companies engage them to help solve problems because they have a demonstrated skillset that typically includes (but is not limited to):

- Outlining a scope of work and mapping out logistical schedules, milestones, and required resources to meet project objectives and solve a problem. 

- Reviewing a client's business and product challenges, developing an understanding of their technologies and internal processes, and effectively leverage that information gathering in order to identify project requirements and resource gaps that may be affecting the needs of the business.  

- Leveraging their project management skills to facilitate communication amongst the company's senior management, and other critical internal and external team members, in order to align important stakeholders around the project. 

During your time in academia you have been developing different skills. They are important, valuable skills. But they are NOT consulting skills.  Even if you have been providing your freelance expertise on a paid basis, it is unlikely (though certainly not impossible) that you have developed the skillset above. 

 If you are accepted to MRF, we see in you a potential for critical thinking, analytical problem solving, and interpersonal communicationDuring the MRF Startup Collaboration you will develop experience with project management, collaboration, and communication. You will learn many of the things consultants know, like how to do a Needs Assessment (it's your first team assignment!) and how to develop a Scope of Work (it's your second team assignment!). You will diagnose a problem and you will make recommendations based on that diagnosis. You will also help to faciliate your startup's ability to learn and understand about relevant scientific and technical topics so that they are more prepared to ace similar problems in the future. You will go beyond the disclipinary niche of your PhD and expand your ability to apply your training to other areas and problems - an invaluable skill. 

In a nutshell, here's the takeaway.


You don't come to the MRF Startup Collaboration to be a consultant. But along the way, you'll learn many of the skills that good consultants have - and they will be complementary to your PhD training.

What is the time commitment for a Mistletoe Research Fellowship?

ResearchFellows are expected to commit roughly 100 hours to their Startup Collaboration Project, beginning in September. You can think of this as being roughly equivalent to the work of being enrolled in a single doctoral-level course throughout the year. On average, the required time commitment is a few hours a week but this will vary and fluctuate when you have team assignements due.


The project continues over two semesters but should be completed by the end of May of the academic calendar year, although some of our Research Fellows have continued to collaborate with their startups after the program is over.

Fellows may also choose to participate in optional webinars or other learning and networking opportunities. These do not count towards your program commitment, as they are optional, but access to these opportunities - typically exclusive to the MRF community - is part of the benefit of this fellowship. Hours spent at your onboarding Match Workshop are also not counted as part of your program commitment.


Similarly to participating in a course, you will not be asked to record your hours in a time-keeping system. However, your team will be counting on you to do your share and without committing the necessary time you won't make progress or be a good collaborator. Consider this an important investment in yourself and your future - because it is!


The time that you spend collaborating and engaging with others in this program (outside of tasks conducted on your own) will be spent either on our Online Learning Community platform or on one of the foundation's Zoom accounts.

Your team will typically work with a 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 Research Fellows get assigned to teams?

Shortly following their acceptance into the program, Research Fellowship recipients are given travel support and accommodation  to attend a "Match Workshopat which they will be onboarded into the program, form teams, match with a startup, and meet community mentors. 


[COVID-19 Disclaimer : during  the COVID pandemic there will be NO TRAVEL for onboarding. Our Virtual Match Workshop will be held from September 10-13. This event replaces our typical in-person global Match Workshop events held in Singapore, Tokyo, and Silicon Valley].

The Match Workshop includes a ‘pitch’ event in which MRF Startups present Pure Knowledge Problems (PKPs) (see next question for further detail) to the Research Fellows. The Research Fellows also have an opportunity to present themselves to the startups. Following these presentations there will be 'speed dating' type event at which all Research Fellows and startups will have a chance to engage.


After you have all had a chance to meet each other, everyone will submit their preferences and the Foundation Team will engage in matchmaking, taking preferences from both sides into account. All matchmaking assignments are final but - take heart - these startups are amazing. And so are the other Research Fellows. You could end up on any team and have a fantastic experience.

Each team will typically have four research fellows, two to three Startup Fellows representing one startup, and a team mentor. 

What deliverables are expected as part of the Startup Collaboration? 

Research Fellows do NOT build products for startups.  Instead your team will develop two resources for your startup that leverage your knowledge and training in order to address an R&D challenge the startup is facing. Learning how to effectively apply your expertise and PhD experience to problems outside your direct field is a critical skill that we grow in our program.


Before MRF startups join the program, the foundation works closely with each participating startup to identify potential R&D challenges which may be appropriate to this program, which we call ‘Pure Knowledge Problem.’ Within the program we refer to this as the startup's PKP. Your teams are called PKP Teams, ocasionally also MRF Teams.


The PKP is a puzzle, or research challenge, that:

  • Advances a clear scientific and technical question, rather than a narrower commercial benefit. For instance 'how do we better regulate the temperature of this product?' rather than 'what is the cheapest material we can use to produce this hardware?' 

  • Is most likely to be solvable using current scientific knowledge. You may get to the edge of current possiiblity but stay out of the realm of science fiction. No robot chickens or anti-gravity boots please!

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

  • Will result in a physical improvement to the startup's product. This means it cannot be a software problem where your team builds software or an app that is to be used commercially. 

  • Can be solved without the use of physical materials or testing by the Research Fellows. 

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 Research Fellows team works with the startup to better understand the problem and then creates two  deliverables:


1) A  review article called the 'Knowledge Base Report,' which is divided into two parts. One describes the science and technologies underlying the core functions of the startup's product, as well as the most common alternatives. The other explores the science and technologies underlying possible means to achieve the functions necessary to solve the PKP.


2) A proposal called the 'Solutions Report' which details one or more fully fleshed out solution concepts for  the PKP and helps 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:

  • Concept for a filter mechanism applied to the startup's water filtration system that lets through particle A but not particle B.

  • Design concept incorporating a proposed material composition that might help the filter system withstand hot, dry, or cold conditions.

  • Concept to improve the energy efficiency of the filter system.

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

  • Concept for add-on 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 Momental, we support startups at the frontiers of technology, meaning that they work with technologies and scientific principles which have not yet reached mass-market commercial adoption. What are some examples of this kind of technology? Electric vehicles are now getting increased adoption after significant efforts by Tesla to ensure that there are places to charge them and a regulatory environment that is friendly to them. In the world of aviation, we're tackling the new rules for dealing with flying objects of all sizes. There are companies experimenting with airships, ultralight aircraft, very large drones, tiny drones and nano drones. From the very big to the very small we need to determine the rules of the road, just as we did for automobiles. In the world of synthetic biology, what are the systems and regulations in place for tissue printing or organ printing? What are the building codes and standards for a 3D printed house? Our startups face these questions - and others like them - every day. 


These technologies still lack a robust ecosystem to support their use so the startups cannot simply use all "off-the-shelf" solutions or lean on what has already been done. Some of our startup founders founded their startup while still undergraduates. Others have earned their PhDs or even completed a postdoc - like you! One startup founder does not have a four-year college degree. What they all do have in common is that they had to develop a proprietary innovation - for which they own the rights to the intellectual property - in order to build their product. It doesn't mean they have been granted a patent yet, although many of our startups already have patents or are patent-pending, but it certainly means they have a good basis for getting one. 

To be eligible for participation in the MRF Startup Collaboration program, startups must have at least developed a fully functional pilot (this goes beyond an  MVP - minimum viable product) with the potential for humanitarian and social impact in one of our Areas of Collaboration.

Within our program, startups are aligned with 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 teams of Research Fellows? 

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 Team Mentors closely manage and support the community.

Fellows receive extensive logistical, technical, and administrative support from our Foundation Team, particularly the OLC Manager who is the primary point of communication for teams. Our platform provider, NovoEd, 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 Team Mentor who checks in regularly, offers suggestions, and serves as a sounding board. Typically, mentors are professionals 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 provides thought leadership in the area of "Technology for Good" in the form of exclusive expert webinars over the year. 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 Research Fellow or with a partner University outside of the program?

The Momental 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 once the Mistletoe Research Fellowship has concluded.  Please be advised that any current university employees will need to be in compliance with their employment contract and their university's general policies and procedures governing outside engagements, which could be specific to their employment classification. Please check your institution's specific policies in order to avoid what is known as a "Conflict of Commitment." 

The Momental Foundation is not liable for any agreements reached outside the scope of our programs.


We welcome our participating university partners to make available their information about their university programs that may be open to our startups, such as their 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

How does intellectual property work for the Startup Collaboration? 

The Mistletoe Research Fellowship 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 Research Fellow’s university research activities. The MRF Startup Collaboration is a separate off-campus extracurricular professional training program administrated by the foundation and conducted exclusively on our online learning platform and within our onboarding Match Workshop.

We ask Research Fellows to sign an agreement that research activities conducted as part of their participation in their MRF Startup Collaboration must be distinct from their university-based 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 Research Fellows will be able to use the MRF Startup Collaboration as an opportunity to expand the application of their PhD training and knowledge, particularly if they have been working within a narrow band of expertise.

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

In the course of the participation in the MRF Startup Collaboration, teams of Research Fellows do not engage in any physical construction of products or product components. They contribute ideas, research, well-developed solution concepts and a "knowledge base" in the form of an extensive review article in the hopes that they can help a startup to solve a ‘Pure Knowledge Problem.’ The MRF Startup is then responsible for "reduction to practice." This means that they provide material resources and know-how, and that they devise, test, and build the physical mechanism that incorporates any solution concepts, whether contributed by the Research 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 Research Fellow may be 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, mentors, community hosts, and the Momental Foundation.

In a nutshell, the Community IP agreement:

• Asks all participants in the MRF Startup Collaboration to assign any commercial IP rights to the startup, recognizing that it is the startup that must execute the reduction to practice and 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. This means that all Research Fellows, mentors, community hosts, and the Momental Foundation itself, formally waive any claim to intellectual property arising from the MRF Startup Collaboration. ​

• Affirms that NO University Owned Physical Resources are to be used in the course of the MRF Startup Collaboration except by explicit written permission from the university and that there are no required material contributions by the university.

• Affirms that where appropriate, Research fellows should listed as co-inventors on any patents filed on the basis of the theoretical solutions and ideas 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.