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Stanford Ignite Program Celebrates 10 Years, With No Signs of Slowing

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Stanford Ignite Program
Igniter Alexander Martin, CEO of AC Global Risk

Another of Taylor’s favorite success stories was founded by a U.S. military veteran. Led by Alexander Martin, AC Global Risk launched a new product last year that uses voice-based threat detection to screen refugees and identify terrorists or other security threats. A former U.S. Marine Corps Infantry & Ground Reconnaissance Officer, Martin jokes that he thinks he may have been registered to take the GMAT since 2005. “Business school was always on my radar—something I thought I wanted to do—but then other things kept coming up,” he says. After leaving active duty in 2011, he got involved in a venture seeking to combat the problem of Somali piracy. When he was next thinking about heading back to school, an opportunity to work for non-profit poverty eradication organization Nuru International arose, and he felt a calling to move to Kenya for two years. Still planning to study for the GMAT while in Kenya, it was at Nuru that he learned about Ignite.

Coming in as a senior manager for Nuru Kenya, Martin sought out the Stanford Ignite program primarily to develop tools that would enable him to return and make the NGO work better, he recalls. And indeed, learning business fundamentals like design thinking and financial modelling within an ecosystem that included some of the smartest professors and minds in the world proved invaluable. “Your mind is just firing and the ink is bleeding on the pages,” he says. To say nothing of the network. “Ignite provides you with the education side but also with access to an incredible network.”

The idea Martin pitched to his Ignite classmates was drawn not from the NGO but from his former military service. Put very simply, it is a voice analysis technology that assesses risk in the human voice in any language over the telephone by analyzing yes or no responses to predefined questions. “We are able to take the art of interview—structured interview—and combine it with the science of our technology,” Martin explains. At the heart of that technology is a proprietary algorithm that can look at the responses to the yes or no questions and score them for risk. “This is not a lie detector,” he underscores. “Lying is binary.” Instead AC Global helps organizations by conducting an interview as part of a first level of screening that can identify people of higher and lower risk, thereby allowing organizations to effectively allocate resources to more intensive screening of those deemed to present higher risks.

Commercially, solutions can range from counter-fraud applications for the insurance and finance industries to pre-employment screening—of interest particularly to firms overseas, where background checks are not yet as prevalent. One client was even able to disrupt a crude oil multi-million dollar theft ring, Martin says.

Government Applications Could Aid Refugee Crises
On the government side, Martin sees a clear application of the technology for screening individuals seeking visas or refugees seeking entrance into a country. “In the case of refugees, you have a whole host of people who are in need and have a right to be processed fairly and start a new life somewhere safe—this technology promises to help accelerate that in a very responsible way,” he continues. “We can accelerate the adjudication of the whole population while at the same time identifying the very small part of this population that might pose an actual risk for second and third screenings.”

The above idea is what Martin brought to his team of fellow Igniters. Once the team voted to focus in on his idea, the Ignite process began to unfold. “The pitch looked very different when we started,” Martin recalls. “But I think that’s really at the core of all tech companies—you have to go through a discovery process, peel back how you are going to bring the technology to market,” he continues. “Ours was a horizontal technology with potential applications in lots of big markets, and we needed to figure out where to start and how to educate people on something that is not being done now.” One Ignite program and two years later, Martin’s firm now has a very clear plan, funding and even counts Charles Holloway, Stanford professor emeritus, as one of its senior advisors.

“Thanks to Ignite, we were able to come in and start swimming in a faster swim lane,” Martin says.

But what about those earlier aspirations to go to business school himself? “Ignite provides exposure to the fundamental elements of entrepreneurship,” Martin says. “It goes pretty deep while in a limited time, but deep enough to make you aware of what you need to go deeper in yourself—or hire around. For me personally, as CEO, I got what I need from Ignite and can—and have—hired MBAs where I need them.”

Stanford Ignite ProgramIgnite as Entrée to an MBA?
“There are times when people will take this program and then they will realize that they have a personal calling to go to an MBA program,” says Taylor. “We have seen that in our veterans’ program quite a bit.” In fact, there is one former Igniter who will graduate from Stanford’s MBA program this year, and Taylor received a nice holiday note from another, who is currently a student at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “By and large we don’t position this as a mini MBA or a precursor or prerequisite for an MBA program,” he says, but in some instances it does play out that way.

As for getting into the Ignite program, what’s involved? Applicants must submit a written application consisting of several essays, as well as two letters of recommendation. “From there, we evaluate all the candidates and then invite a subset to interview with us, either in person or via live video,” says Taylor. Ignite is a mission-driven program for Stanford, he stresses. “The goal is not to generate profits—it’s all about impact,” he says. “We look to find candidates who are truly exceptional and are leaders in their field. If I can only find 30 people in Santiago who meet the admissions standards, we will run a cohort of 30.”

There is some variation in the program’s cost. Tuition for programs at Ignite’s international locations is $10,000, with the exception of Bangalore, where the cost is $8,500. In recognition of their service, military veterans get a big break. “We ask the veterans to pay just $2,000 in tuition,” Taylor says.

To Mark 10th Anniversary, Stanford Reunites 125 Igniters

Stanford Ignite Program
Bruce Taylor (right) kicks off the panel presentation. From left to right: “Igniters” Nicholas Karnaze, Ksenia Starikova, Christoph Kohstall, Gbemisola Ogunyomi, and Stanford Ignite faculty director Yossi Feinberg. | Photo credit: Bonnie Cegielski

Last fall, to commemorate the Ignite program’s first decade, Taylor and Feinberg welcomed more than 125 of the 1,600 Igniters who have completed the program since its debut in 2006. At an event in Stanford GSB’s Knight Management Center, five panelists shared their experiences in Ignite—and beyond—with an auditorium full of fellow Igniters. “We are pretty humble people here at Stanford, so we haven’t done a lot to really celebrate this 10th anniversary, but seeing the impact that our Igniters are having—both in Silicon Valley and around the world—was definitely inspiring,” says Taylor. At least one representative from every Ignite cohort made it to the reunion, he added.

Martin, 34, describes Ignite as phenomenal and transformational. “The advertising that Stanford does about ‘changing lives, changing the world’ is not just hyperbole,” he says. “I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to take part, grateful that Stanford took a chance on veterans and grateful to the professors—men and women who don’t need to spend more hours of their days teaching classes but did it anyway,” he says.

To other veterans or potential Ignite applicants, Martin issued the following call to action: “Seize this opportunity, get in the arena, attack this opportunity as aggressively as you would an enemy position overseas,” he says.

To learn more about the Stanford Ignite program, click here.