Two recent examples of Penn student-designed solutions to common problems.
When Kabeer Chopra W’17 moved to Philadelphia to enroll at Wharton, his first lesson was on the difficulties of furnishing an apartment. “The one thing I couldn’t find for a decent price and quality was a sofa,” he says.
Inspired by the challenge, he and classmate Stephen Kuhl W’17 set out to solve the riddle of couches that cost too much, took months to deliver, and were tricky to move. “We wanted to make something inexpensive, sturdy, and intuitive for customers,” Chopra says.
The duo started a company named Burrow and designed a modular couch that breaks down into pieces small enough to ship in boxes. Over the past year, they have been making small tweaks to improve the design and cut costs. “It’s on its fifteenth or sixteenth variation,” says Chopra. “We want it not-too-modern, not-too-classic, so it can fit into any home.”
The result is a modular solution that starts at $550 as a one-seat chair and scales up to any size a consumer desires. In April, it won the School of Design’s 2017 iDesign Prize. The entrepreneurs say they deliver orders within a week and the couch can be assembled in less than 10 minutes.
On a recent visit to Lebanon, Mazin Blaik EAS’17 was touched by the sight of Syrian refugees living in tents, struggling to stay warm over the winter. “The tents don’t provide adequate living conditions,” he says. “It gets very cold at night.”
He and fellow students Stephen Michalowski EAS’17, Justin Gonsalves EAS’17, and Kellen Sanna EAS’17 decided to invent a practical solution in their mechanical engineering senior design class.
It is a metal cylinder that screws on top of wood stoves and holds gravel to trap heat that would otherwise escape out the exhaust pipe. The device, called Ember, ships flat and is easy to assemble. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Gonsalves. “We wanted to make it as simple, effective, and cheap as possible.”
To test the device, the group built a tent in Blaik’s back yard in West Philadelphia and collected data that showed just how much more efficient Ember was than a standard wood stove. The thermal mass of gravel prevented a drastic reduction in temperature when the fuel ran out, and provided 150 percent more heating time, Blaik says. They calculated that the kits could be produced for $67 apiece and would save refugees 66 cents out of the $2 they normally spent on fuel each night. Under those assumptions, Ember would pay for itself in less than one winter.
So far, there is only one model in existence, but the group is exploring options to continue the endeavor as a side project following graduation, or handing it off to a humanitarian aid organization. “It would be great to see families using them,” says Blaik.