Fertilizer startup Nitricity wins BASES 100K challenge

April 13, 2020, 7:57 p.m.

A startup that created a more efficient fertilizer distribution process has won the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) 100K Challenge in the event’s first-ever virtual iteration. 

The startup, Nitricity, will take home $45,000 and receive an interview opportunity with StartX’s student-in-residence program, which provides financial support for students building companies while pursuing degrees. 

Nitricity’s win is the result of over two years of work and research, begun when the team was brought together via the course Stanford Energy Ventures and inspired to tackle the decarbonization of major industries soon after. The team consists of Nicolas Pinkowski M.S. ’17, a fourth-year energy systems Ph.D. candidate; Joshua McEnaney, a chemical engineering postdoctoral fellow; Brian Rohr, a fifth-year chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate; Jay Schwalbe Ph.D. ’20; Edward Silva MBA ’20; and Thomas Jaramillo ’98, a professor in the chemical engineering department.

After realizing that fertilizer distribution is incredibly carbon-inefficient, the team decided to develop on-site fertilizer production processes. Team members found that they could produce nitrogen with just air, water and renewable electricity, work that has since been recognized with an MIT Clean Energy Prize Scholarship and a Stanford TomKat Grant.

On Friday, they added the 100K Challenge’s Morgenthaler Grand Prize to their total. 

The 100K Challenge allows teams to compete for money to fund their business ventures in the Social Impact, Consumer, Medical and Enterprise categories. Ten teams from each category were selected to pitch to judges on Thursday, and the top teams in each category moved on to pitch at the final round the next day. In addition, to encourage undergraduate entrepreneurship, BASES selected the two best undergraduate teams to move on to the final round.

Formally, the social impact finalist, provides technology that helps users complete their asylum, immigration and citizenship forms. Zinn Labs, the consumer finalist, is an autofocal company working on automatically focusing glasses to help combat farsightedness. Lastly, Molto, the medical finalist, presented solutions for restoring blood flow in critical limb ischemia.

The remaining category finalists received $15,000 each. 

Two teams of sophomores competed for the undergraduate prize. The first team, Guardian, introduced drones intended to see through walls to search for survivors and assist first responders. Init, the second team, aims to help engineers better understand their codebase. 

“The only way to know whether you can solve a problem or not is to try and solve it, and the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t and you learn and you’re better prepared to tackle the next challenge,” Init co-founder Ian Singer ’22 told The Daily. “All undergrads should explore [entrepreneurship] because if you fail, you’re going to learn an incredible amount and that’s beautiful.”

Init was announced the winner of the Undergraduate Prize, taking home $7,500, and Guardian took home $2,500. In addition to monetary prizes, all finalists received a final-round interview opportunity with Cardinal Ventures, Stanford’s student-run accelerator, which will occur in the fall.

“Our next goal is to do some hiring,” Singer said. “We want to find enthusiastic people in the growth mindset who love to learn.”

Due to coronavirus-related campus closures, this year’s challenge was held over a Zoom call for the first time. 

“It was pretty streamlined,” said Nitricity co-founder Nicolas Pinkowski Ph.D. ’20. “It was a bit odd no one could see you when you were presenting. It’s all about what you say and how you articulate it. It really helped us focus on the message we were delivering.”

BASES Challenge vice president Armando Martinez Jr. ’20 said that he hopes next year’s challenge will be in person, but he aims to continue offering a virtual viewing option: Over 100 students, investors and alumni tuned in to Friday’s final round.

“I think what we learned from this year’s competition is that there is value from getting a stream for the competition,” he said. “If you lower the barrier of entry for these types of events, a lot of people will join in.”

This article has been corrected to include the names of all Nitricity teammates. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Enya Lu at enyalu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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