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Wharton Freshmen Beat A Crowd Of MBAs In Major Venture Competition

Four University of Pennsylvania freshman from ToxiSense won Wharton School’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge on April 29. They are, from left, ToxiSense Co-Founder and COO Udit Garg, Co-Founder and CEO Aravind Krishnan, Chief Science Officer Aarush Sahni, and Chief Business Officer Andrew Diep-Tran. Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship Lori Rosenkopf is also pictured. Courtesy photo.

The genesis of the idea began when Aravind Krishnan was in eighth grade, walking along a New Jersey beach littered with dead horseshoe crabs. Five years later, the idea has nabbed him $80,000 to develop his company, ToxiSense, and the very real chance to help save the prehistoric-looking crab and the coastal ecosystem that depends on it.

Krishnan’s walk along the beach was part of a class trip to the Jersey Shore. Local ecologists informed the class that the horseshoe crab was a keystone species–one that the entire coastal ecosystem depends on–dating back more than 450 million years, making them older than the dinosaurs. Today, the crabs’ fluorescent blue blood is used to detect harmful bacteria in vaccines, medical equipment, and drinking water. But the method is both highly expensive–a gallon of horseshoe crab blood costs about $60,000–and environmentally damaging. Ecologists explained that after their blood is harvested, the crabs are thrown back into the ocean. Although harvesters claim the crabs survive the blood extraction, most of them do not.

Horseshoe crabs

“I saw these piles of empty horseshoe shells along the shoreline, and the vivid image shocked me, along with what I learned from the ecologists in the local area,” Krishnan tells Poets&Quants. “It’s certainly something that has been with me throughout this whole journey.”

A PLANT-BASED ALTERNATIVE TO CRAB BLOOD

Krishnan, now a freshman at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, worked throughout high school to develop an alternative to horseshoe crab blood in the detection of endotoxins. He poured through the research. He worked afternoons and weekends, mostly alone, inside a university laboratory, learning to genetically engineer a plant that could detect the same endotoxins as crab blood. The technology he developed can accurately detect endotoxins in medical equipment and drinking water at just 5% of the cost of the current method and with none of the environmental damage.

On April 29, about five years after his walk on the New Jersey beach, Krishnan and his team of three other Wharton freshmen won the $50,000 grand prize (plus $10,000 in legal funding) at the Venture Lab Startup Challenge, Wharton’s Entrepreneurship Startup Showcase. They beat out seven other finalists made mostly of Wharton MBAs or upperclassmen with what one judge described as a “perfect example of an effective pitch.”

Krishnan, founder and CEO of ToxiSense, recruited three classmates to both his company and his pitch team. They include co-founder and COO Udit Garg, Chief Business Officer Andrew Diep-Tran, and Chief Science Officer Aarush Sahni. ToxiSense also won the New Venture Collaboration Award and the Undergraduate Award for $10,000 each, bringing the total winnings to $80,000.

Poets&Quants had the great pleasure of speaking with Krishnan to learn more about his technology, the startup challenge, and what comes next for ToxiSense. Click through to the end of the story to read more about the Wharton startup challenge and the seven other finalists.

Take us back to middle school and that trip to the Jersey Shore. What happened that sparked the idea for ToxiSense?

So, this was how the whole thing started. At the end of eighth grade, we took a class trip to the nearby Jersey Shore, and we learned about the horseshoe crabs which are a keystone species of coastal ecosystems around the East Coast, and also globally. They talked about how these horseshoe crabs are being overharvested. I learned that horseshoe crab blood is used to test for bacterial toxin contamination on medical devices, medicines, and even in drinking water.

So you know, as a young eighth grader, I obviously didn’t have much experience in science or research, but being a lover of the natural world and the environment, and also having a keen interest in biology, I wanted to see if I could somehow create a better solution. So that summer, I read a lot of research papers in the field of natural systems that are responsive to bacterial endotoxins, and I came upon this plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. I discovered that it has this natural immune response to these bacterial toxins. So I thought I could somehow engineer this plant to serve as an endotoxin biocenter.

After putting together an initial research proposal, I pitched my idea to professors in local universities. One of the biggest hurdles was actually getting them to believe that this idea from a freshman in high school had any scientific merit behind it. Ultimately, I was able to find a lab to do my research. So, throughout high school, I pursued this research. After school, I’d go immediately to this lab at my local university, and work on it from like 3:30 in the afternoon to 9:30 at night, spending hour upon hour, basically every single day, working on this research.

What were you doing in the lab specifically?

The main goal of my research was to engineer this plant to basically serve as a way to measure the amount of bacterial toxin in a sample applied to it. The approach that I took, is I tried to make these plants produce light based on the amount of bacterial toxin in the sample. So things I did included basic lab techniques from like gel electrophoresis to western blotting, to more advanced things like using Agrobacterium- mediated gene mutations in these plants. There was a big learning curve for me, but I think my interests in both biology and genetic engineering truly drove me to learn these techniques. And also my professor’s support really was invaluable as well. I think without him, none of this would have been possible.

What university, and who was the professor?

I did my research at Rutgers University, and the professor who allowed me to do my research in this lab is Dr. Eric Lam. I think I pitched my idea to almost 100 professors in total, and he was the only one who ended up giving me this opportunity to conduct my research in his lab. He provided materials, safety training, and just a general space for me to conduct my research. Without his support, it would not have been impossible.

Next page: Q&A with Aravind Krishnan, Co-founder and CEO of ToxiSense