On Friday, May 3, Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship held its third annual Startup Challenge and Showcase, sponsored by Eric Aroesty C92, in Huntsman Hall. The event spotlights the best and brightest student-led ventures from across the Penn community. Eight teams were selected from nearly 30 semifinalists that competed earlier in the morning in a series of closed-door pitches in front of alumni entrepreneurs and investors. The finalists went on to pitch in front of a live audience and a panel of judges, competing for $135,000 in cash and prizes to fund their startups.
This year’s competition proved to be one of the most difficult for the judges, but one team dominated: Aerate, founded by a group of Wharton and SEAS undergraduates, won four of the nine awards, including the Perlman Grand Prize, the Frederick H. Gloeckner Undergraduate Award, the Blank Award, and the People’s Choice Award. Aerate is developing an air conditioner specifically for India, with plans to capture an estimated $20 billion market through its technology designed for high-humidity environments.
Aerate CEO Ashwin Kishen ENG 19 W19, CFO Connor Sendel ENG19 W19, and fellow co-founder Jake Fine ENG19 GEN19 spoke after the competition about their motivation, Penn’s impact on their startup, and their plans for the future.
Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship: What was the inspiration for Aerate?
Ashwin Kishen: We started Aerate in Penn’s Mechanical Engineering senior design capstone because we wanted to tackle an impactful problem. I brought up cooling as a climate problem and market opportunity, based on personal experience visiting family in India. Air conditioners are a leading cause of climate change and there are huge engineering challenges associated with mitigating this threat. As a team we researched the issue further and immediately realized both the scope and the significance of the problem. There will be over three billion new air conditioners around the world by 2050, and these coolers are an essential purchase to avoid potentially life-threatening heat. There are no easy solutions to this problem. We identified next-generation cooling methods and read academic papers by experts in the field, ultimately finding a few promising studies. However, none had taken the step of trying to scale the technology to home size and incorporate market-ready features.
PWE: How did you and your team come together?
Connor Sendel: Aerate spawned from a senior design team in Penn’s Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) department. We had all worked on projects in the past and knew we worked very well together, with each person bringing a different skill set to the team. We formed in August 2018 and have been largely focusing our time on the design and engineering of our air conditioner.
PWE: How did you decide on getting involved with entrepreneurship at Penn?
Sendel: While the whole team has an entrepreneurial spirit, I have personally been involved in the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Penn since I was a freshman, having formerly been a part of the Weiss Tech House team. But we did not necessarily intend for Aerate to be a company when the project began. As we began to see promising results of our tech development, we applied to funding opportunities throughout Penn. There are so many students working on innovative ideas here and each opportunity was extremely competitive. Every failure and success pushed us to refine the business plan and improve our communications skills. After receiving funding from the Penn Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and winning the M&T Integration Lab competition, we felt even better about our project and looked into other opportunities, ultimately winning Pennvention, which led us to the Startup Challenge.
PWE: Can you recall a specific course that helped shaped your venture?
Jake Fine: The whole team is of course engineers, so it was largely engineering courses which really played an impactful role in our project. For our team, MEAM Senior Design was very important. The department gave us amazing resources and the gift of time to pursue anything we were excited about as a senior design project. Even before this, the team had exposure to many other impactful classes. Our VP of R&D Yann Pfitzer notes that Direct Energy Conversion was a strong motivation to explore the energy and efficiency world. Ashwin says his business perspective on our project was motivated by Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovation. For Connor, taking Venture Capital this spring had been incredibly fun because he has a startup to apply class concepts to.
PWE: Was there someone who was critical to your success, an advisor or mentor?
Kishen: Over the course of the project, we have had a ton of support from within Penn. Our Senior Design professor, Graham Wabiszewski, encouraged us to tackling cooling even though it was obviously a huge undertaking for a senior project. He really emphasized impact in project selection, which helped us get to this project. We also had a number of technical advisors, including our project advisor, MEAM professor Paulo Arratia. They were great for bouncing ideas off and helped us determine which technologies could really address the global cooling challenge. Beyond that, we’ve relied on each other a lot, and we are proud that we were able to independently carry this project to fruition.
PWE: What are your plans with the prize money?
Kishen: This prize money will be hugely impactful for Aerate’s continued development. We already had plans to build the next iteration of our prototype in the next several months, but we were not sure how to fund it. Now that we have the funding, we will be continuing our prototyping to optimize our system further. From a business development perspective, we are continuing our IP efforts, and starting to refine the user experience with a design firm.
PWE: What are Aerate’s plans for the future?
Sendel: When we set out on this as a class project at the beginning of the year, it would have been hard to imagine we’d get this far. In the short term, we plan to continue our product development, as I mentioned, and also apply to the Global Cooling Prize with our technology. This competition is an ongoing multi-million dollar competition to design a better air conditioner for the Indian market. Regardless of the results of that competition, we will be looking to raise more funding and would like to add a couple of team members, specifically a chemical engineer or materials scientist to help out with the product and an Indian market business development expert. Our goal is to have a product in the market by the end of 2021. We are just excited to see where this takes us.