Biotechnology / Pitches / Startups

A freshmen-led biopharma startup was the grand winner at Penn’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge

The team is building ToxiSense, which aims to provide a sustainable and cheap test for clean drinking water. Cofounder Aravind Krishnan has been working on the tech since high school.

(L to R) Udit Garg, Aravind Krishnan, Aarush Sahni, Andrew Diep-Tran and Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship Lori Rosenkopf. (Courtesy photo)

Biopharma company ToxiSense was first imagined by 19-year-old Aravind Krishnan years ago on an eighth-grade trip to the Jersey Shore. Now, that startup just took home $85,000 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge pitch competition.

For the first time in three years, the the startup challenge was held in person in Tangen Hall, the university’s  hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation. ToxiSense, which aims to provide a sustainable and cheaper test for clean drinking water, swept the competition.

The company’s cofounding team is made up of four freshmen — Krishnan, Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran and Aarush Sahni — and its product aims to improve the endotoxin testing required to clear water as safe for drinking. The current process uses very expensive horseshoe crab blood and is a strain on the environment, Krishnan told

“It’s a keystone species, and their population decline is very big,” he said. “I learned about this problem on this trip to the shore and wanted to create environmentally friendly version.”

Krishnan said he began developing technology to genetically engineer plants with bioluminescent properties while in high school. The process aims to serve as a sustainable, cost-effective solution, with the arabidopsis plant engineered to luminesce based on the endotoxin concentration applied to it.

Krishnan came to Penn with the plan for ToxiSense and met his cofounders this academic year. The four met mentors and conducted research, and presented to judges at the April 29 competition with the initial tech and engineering plan, plus plant cells, in hand. The group took home the pitch competition’s grand prize of $50,000 alongside awards for best undergraduate team and the new venture collaboration award.

ToxiSense was selected from a field of eight finalist teams including DeToXyFi, Groov, Impact Local, Miren, Nemu, Ossum Technologies and Shinkei Systems Corp. The finalists had advanced from a group of 30 ventures during the semi-finals portion of the competition, which consisted of a day of virtual pitching and Q&A in front of alumni entrepreneur and investor panels. A panel of alumni judges and nearly 200 attendees heard the group’s pitches.

This summer, the ToxiSense team plans to put about $50,000 into research and development with the goal of improving its sensitivity of testing and creating a user-friendly test kit prototype. Other next steps would include filing patents and starting a customer testing process.

Though he’s got the majority of his higher education career still ahead of him, Krishnan said he sees himself pursuing this venture out in the real world, post graduation. The company combines his interests of clinical and biotech research in a quickly growing field.

“I’m really interested and excited about the biotech space,” Krishnan said. “There’s so much to learn about science and its impact on our lives. I see a lot of potential for it, and hope to be part of that growth.”

Companies: Wharton School

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