Startup generation

Using an innovative plasma coating, engineering student Prince Ghosh believes he can reduce drag on turbine blades, allowing them to spin faster and longer.

Case is increasingly a place for aspiring entrepreneurs like Prince Ghosh,
who tapped an array of campus resources to put his ideas to work.

By Madeline Fixler

As he enters his fourth year at the Case School of Engineering, Prince Ghosh has already packed more into college than some people do in a career. He invented promising technology, launched a company, applied for patents and represented his university at prestigious startup competitions. All on the road to a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Innovative and outgoing—with engineering achievements to his credit—Ghosh finds Case to be a place of discovery and action.

“I tell incoming high school seniors that if you come to college and all you do is school, you’re wasting your money,” he said. “There’s so much more that a collegiate experience has to offer, particularly at a research university like Case.”

 He’s not alone. In fact, he represents a new kind of Case student. In decades past, student entrepreneurship was reserved for a select few, but no longer. With the help of resources such as Sears think[box], the IP Venture Clinic and LaunchNet, on-campus innovation is becoming easier and more common.

Joseph Jankowski, PhD, the Chief Innovation Officer for the Office of Research and Technology Management, sees a new culture taking root.

 “If you were to ask me five or 10 years ago who were the entrepreneurs on campus, I would be able to give you a few names of students who, by pure will, were there without much support,” Jankowski said. “But now, we have whole classes and even a Facebook page just for university entrepreneurs… It’s its own grassroots community.”

Within that community, Ghosh stands taller than most. He used fabrication machinery at Sears think[box] and a wind tunnel in the Glennan Building to test an idea he had for reducing wind drag. 

He said he began thinking of the innovation as a first-year student, while reading about the non-linear chaos theories of a Russian scientist. When a summer internship fell through, he had time to tinker.

Boundary Labs is made up of Ghosh and two other students: Lucas Fridman, a raising senior studying chemical Engineering and data Science, and Nihar Chattiawala, who is pursuing a master’s degree in physics and entrepreneurship. 

 The trio met during a Great Lakes Energy Institute ThinkEnergy Fellowship last spring on campus. They discovered a shared passion for clean energy research and entrepreneurship, much as the fellowship program had intended. 

 The team developed a dielectric barrier discharge plasma actuator technology, or a small electrode that, when activated, would break down the air surrounding turbine blades and airplane wings into plasma and decrease drag. That means the blades can slice through the air more easily.

To protect their ideas, the team turned to the IP Venture Clinic of the CWRU School of Law.  There, inventors and aspiring entrepreneurs get free help searching patents, incorporating and protecting intellectual property, or IP. 

“The Venture Clinic is one of the greatest hidden gems on campus,” Ghosh said. Through their services and the assistance of other programs, Boundary Labs was able to launch at almost no cost to the team, he said. 

 The company is now attracting interest from investors and manufacturers, and no wonder. The team has been piling up acclaim. It was invited to Chicago in February to compete in the regional Midwest CleanTech University Prize competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Then it was off to Pittsburgh to compete for the Allegheny Prize at Carnegie Mellon, before accepting an invitation to the FLOW DOE Cleantech UP business plan competition at the California Institute of Technology 

 In addition to the plasma coating, the students are working on a sensor to measure vibrations from wind turbine gearboxes and predict their breakdown.

“We found out that another big need in the wind turbine space was that the number one cause of failure for wind turbines across the world is gearbox failure,” Ghosh said. Because gearboxes are costly and time-consuming to replace, technology that could sense that would expedite that supply chain.

In addition to seeking to license their turbine aerodynamics technology, the team found several beta testers for their sensors in the manufacturing industry, as industrial equipment faces the same failure as wind turbines.

"It’s really convenient, being that we’re in Cleveland, which could be the manufacturing capital of America, if not the world, and has this historic manufacturing sector,” Ghosh said.

Balancing student life with running a business is hard, and sometimes requires extra help. That doesn’t mean that Ghosh would have it any other way. He devotes time to campus life, having served two years as vice president of academic affairs and one as speaker for the student body for undergraduate student government.  

“There’s an extent to the things you can learn in the classroom, but there is so much for that you can learn by doing things outside of that,” he said.