4 Wharton Freshmen Win Major Venture Challenge

ToxiSense Co-Founder and CEO Aravind Krishnan presents to a panel of Wharton alumni judges at the Venture Lab Startup Challenge. Courtesy photo

And you worked on this technology all through high school?

Yes, and by the end of high school I had this technology developed. So after coming to Penn, I knew I wanted to actually create this real-world application. I met my co-founder (Udit Garg) through an accelerator at Penn in the fall. And we on-boarded two additional people onto the team, Andrew Diep and Aarush Sahni. We’ve been building up the company since then.

So, explain the technology as simply as you can.

So all medical products and drinking water must be tested for endotoxins, sickness causing molecules from bacteria. The current method for testing for this relies on horseshoe crab blood, which is both expensive and environmentally damaging to acquire. ToxiSense aimed to develop more sustainable and cost effective tests., and we did it by genetically engineering a plant to glow, or luminescence, at different intensities based on the amount of bacterial toxin in the sample applied to it. Our test is just 5% of the cost of the current method, and comes without any environmental damage.

So we hope to create immense impact for testing medical products, since, for example, almost half of all hospital deaths are caused in some part by these bacterial toxins. As well as for drinking water: 1.6 billion people globally don’t have access to clean drinking water, and we hope to help solve that problem using this technology. I think these are the two big areas we see our impact being made, and we’re excited to make this impact.

How is this technology applied in the field?

ToxiSense grows Arabidopsis thaliana in its lab and creates a testing solution it that can be sent into the field to test for endotoxins. Courtesy photo

We grow these plants in our own facility, and they take just three weeks to grow. Then we create a solution by taking a leaf and essentially grinding it up and putting it into a test tube. Our test kits contain this test tube containing our plant shells and we send them out to whoever wants to use it. Finally, the user would add their sample to the test tube and the test tube will luminescence at different intensities, which indicates how much endotoxin is in the sample.

So tell me about Wharton’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge. Were you nervous going against all those MBAs and upperclassmen?

It is Penn’s biggest startup or entrepreneurship competition. As freshmen, we always had this competition in our sights, but we knew that it was very unlikely for us to win since the vast majority of teams are actually MBAs, or at least upperclassmen. We knew it was a longshot. At the same time, we knew that our idea had a lot of merit and had a lot of potential, and we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.

We initially applied in January for the first round, and we found out we were selected as semi finalists in March. I think there were about 100 teams who submitted initially and 30 teams selected as semi finalists. We pitched our idea during the semifinal round, and found out that at the end of April that we were selected as one of the eight finalist teams.

The in-person pitch for the final round was at Tangen Hall, which is Wharton’s primary startup incubator space. The judges were Wharton alumni with extensive experience in the startup and VC space. And we pitched both the technology and the business side and the impact we can make.

And, you know, they all seem to be excited about it. Despite the fact that we’re freshmen, we felt that in developing this technology over the past five years, we have a long track record with the company and the technology already. I think that convinced them that we’ve shown this much determination and grit already that our age ended up not being a significant barrier. I think they saw that as potential.

It must have been nerve racking, though, standing up in front of all these highly accomplished people and against MBAs with much more Wharton experience.

Yeah, definitely. And, all the other teams had really great ideas. At the end of the day, I think there is definitely some luck involved as well.

What kind of traction have you already gotten with ToxiSense?

A ToxiSense test kit

We’ve already been talking to potential customers in our two main customer bases: biopharma companies and water testing users. We talked to some small tech companies in the local Philadelphia area to conduct endotoxin testing of their medical products, and they mentioned that endotoxin testing is actually a really big overhead cost. And especially for the small scale biotech companies, they want to invest as much money as they can to actually develop their products and bring them to market and they can’t afford to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on testing their products for toxin contamination. They’ve expressed a lot of excitement in buying our product once we roll it out to the market.

We’ve also begun talking to water testing users like the Philadelphia Water Department, for example. We’re trying to partner with them as our first water testing user to validate our technology in the local area before we start rolling out to underdeveloped settings, both in the US and overseas who can use our product to test for contamination in drinking water.

I’ve actually read a couple of stories on the use of horseshoe crab blood to test medical equipment, and I was sort of appalled at the waste of it all. It’s really interesting to hear your role in all of this.

I think this issue has been coming to the public consciousness more and more. For example, every single COVID vaccine was tested for this toxin contamination using horseshoe crab blood, and billions of COVID vaccines were made. So I think that that’s how this whole problem has come into the public eye.

So what are you going to do with the $80,000? What’s next?

Most of it will go back into our R&D. This summer, we’ve been accepted into an accelerator program from the VC firm SOSV. They have a research space in New York where we’ll be conducting our research this summer.

We have two main goals with our R&D over the next few months: One is to increase the sensitivity of our testing method so we can detect endotoxins in smaller trace amounts. Two is to engineer a prototype of our test kits and actually begin customer testing with prototypes so we can translate our science into a user friendly test. We currently plan to invest $50K of our prize winnings into R&D.

Another goal of ours in the next few months is to obtain IP protection on our technology. We hope to invest about $15K from our winnings into this aspect. The remaining money will obviously go toward other things like marketing to customers, customer acquisition, and also contributing more toward R&D If needed.

Do you plan on finishing your degree at Wharton, or will ToxiSense require your full attention?

We’ll see how it goes, how fast the company grows. But for now, I’m definitely trying to finish my degree here. Because, no matter how successful this is, it’s really important to have that backing and have the education behind you. Especially since I’m only a freshman, I really haven’t had much of a college education yet.

I think the program I’m in is really exciting. It’s actually a dual degree program between the Wharton School and the College of Arts and Sciences. So, I’m studying molecular biology in the college and healthcare management and statistics at Wharton. I think combining both the science side and the business side through this degree is perfect for me. No other school in the nation has this as a unified program where I could combine both my deep interest in science and entrepreneurship and business.

What were some of the judges saying after you ToxiSense finished its pitch?

The remark I remembered most clearly was right after we finished pitching. One of the judges mentioned that it was the perfect example of an effective pitch. That was surprising to hear because I haven’t had much startup experience. I think at that point, we knew that the judges at least saw the potential in our idea.

As an eighth grader visiting the Jersey Shore, were you already interested in science, or did that trip trigger something in you?

I was definitely always interested in science. And I think my interest in business came through the development of the technology. I was actually never really interested in business. I didn’t apply to any other undergraduate business programs other than Wharton. So this was all about the science for me. I think business ended up just being a venue to translate scientific innovation into something that can actually make a positive impact in the lives of people.

How do you feel right now, after working on this idea since the eighth grade, to see it really turning into something?

I think it’s a combination of excitement as well as some nervousness obviously. Excitement because something I’ve been trying to develop over the past five years is finally coming to fruition. And it’s coming close to actually creating some positive impact in the real world. At the same time, there’s also some nervousness, being a 19-year-old freshman in college. There are people with decades more experience than me. All around me, right. Being very young and trying to build this company is definitely something obviously new to me, and that poses a lot of new challenges.

What if you become the guy that saves the horseshoe crab?

I think that would be exciting. Horseshoe crabs are a keystone species that are the basis of this coastal ecosystem. As I learned from the ecologists, saving these horseshoe crabs would be akin to saving coastal ecosystems globally. I hope that, if we succeed, that we can actually help save these coastal ecosystems that are so important to our environment in general.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think an important part of our journey was definitely our mentors and everyone who supported us because, as a young kid developing this, it wouldn’t have been possible without it. There are a lot of people who have been really supportive of us and we definitely could have not done it without them.

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