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 2021, due to a smaller cohort, the Areas of Collaboration will be combined]


In this program, Research Fellows collaborate with frontier technology hardware startups over the course of the academic year on an 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 one of our onboarding "Match Workshop." [COVID-19 Disclaimer : in 2021, a single 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].  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, MRF 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, based on their own proprietary innovations, with humanitarian and social impact potential. While the 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. Rather, an MRF Startup has typically piloted and alpha or beta tested their product with some users. Some MRF Startups are already revenue-positive with paying customers. However, none will have reached the point at which they are mass-scaling their product into the thousands. They have an early working product that can still benefit from 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?

ResearchFellows are expected to commit roughly 100 hours to their Startup Collaboration Project, beginning in late August. The project is over two semesters but must be completed by the end of 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 webinars or other learning and networking opportunities.  After participating in a required onboarding "Match Workshop" funded by the foundation, Research Fellows use our robust online community platform to collaborate with their team.

 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 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 : in 2021, a single 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.  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.

Others sessions of the Match Workshop include our Community Host 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? 

Research Fellows do NOT build products for startups but instead function as a resource that focuses on their knowledge and training. 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 can be matched to a team of Research Fellows, the foundation works closely with each participating startup to identify what we call a ‘Pure Knowledge Problem.’ Within the program we refer to this as their PKP and the teams as PKP Teams.


The PKP is a puzzle, or research challenge, 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

  • Will result in a physical improvement to the startup's product

  • 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 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 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 Community 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 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

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.