Duke student entrepreneurs solve energy challenges

chowby Dan Chow, MEM/MBA ’15

Dan Chow is a Duke graduate student pursuing dual Master’s degrees in Environmental Management and Business Administration. In this column, Dan shares his experiences pursuing environment-related entrepreneurial ventures at Duke.


Dan Chow (pictured) and his teammates pitched their Refrackt business plan in the Duke Start-Up Challenge, Apr. 11, 2013

I first became interested in energy entrepreneurship while working on a geothermal-based start-up as an undergraduate at Middlebury College. When I arrived at Duke to pursue my graduate studies, I first attempted to repackage the idea of using old oil and gas infrastructure for geothermal power, and recruited a team to participate in the Program for Entrepreneurs (P4E) at The Fuqua School of Business. While that idea fell through after several conversations, I was still keen to gain additional entrepreneurial experience.

Through a serendipitous meeting, I teamed up with Judy Winglee, a PhD student at the Pratt School of Engineering, Mark Panny (MEM-WRM), and Victor Smith (MEM-EE) to compete in the Duke Start-Up Challenge (DSC), a Duke-wide competition for new business ideas across a broad spectrum of industries. Our proposed venture, Refrackt, built on Judy’s research to tackle water consumption and wastewater production in the hydraulic fracturing industry. Our technology uses the heat energy embodied in the wastewater to help drive the purification process while handling the complex makeup of the hydraulic fracturing industry’s wastewater. With the initial concept in place, we entered the DSC with the goal of gaining as much experience as possible while receiving external feedback and validation of our concept.

Start-Up Competitions

After entering our venture in the first round of the DSC, industry experts and Duke professors provided insightful feedback about our proposed approach. For instance, many of the judges’ comments helped inform our intellectual property strategy going forward. The judges also provided a great list of industry contacts, which has resulted in mentoring opportunities and even the chance to pilot our technology once it reaches that stage. Lastly, many of the judges encouraged us to develop a more detailed financial case to complement the technical and policy arguments we covered initially. Following that advice, we evaluated the market potential and cash flows with detailed calculations to support our arguments.

Based on the updated business plan and our “pitch” video, Refrackt was chosen as the winner of the Clean Energy Track, which came with a $10,000 prize. That title also gave us the chance to represent Duke University at the ACC Clean Energy Challenge, which took the winners from ten schools’ clean tech competitions and pitted them against each other for a $100,000 check and a berth to the Department of Energy’s national competition. In a period of a few short months, we evolved from a group of broke students with an idea to a promising start-up team with the potential to capture over a hundred thousand dollars of funding.


As our team began excitedly preparing our presentation for both competitions, we quickly realized that fitting everything into eight minutes was trickier than expected. We also learned that pitching is more of an art than a science. Therefore, we ended up choosing only the most compelling statistics while boiling down the description of our core technology into an easy to understand analogy. That process was a challenge since we saw merit in including all of the information that we had been studying and researching during our time at Duke. Fortunately, the depth of our team’s knowledge came out during the question and answer sections of each pitch. Overall, our team found that pitching in front of judges and a live audience at both venues was an amazing learning experience that helped place our graduate studies into a real-world context.

A Worldview

On many college campuses, entrepreneurship has become hip over the last few years. However, I often hear people worry about not having an idea. One thing that I have learned through this process is that the term “entrepreneurial” is more of a worldview than a specific plan. The key is to continually ask the question, “Can this [process, product, etc…] be done differently or better?” If the answer is “yes,” then there is potential value in building a business or altering operations to capture that opportunity. Approaching problems from that angle can make everyone entrepreneurial, and it is beneficial no matter what organization you are in since you will always be looking for ways to improve how things are done.

Our team began this project with the goal of learning, and I am convinced that building entrepreneurial ventures is an excellent way to integrate your studies and extend the student experience outside of the classroom. Since roughly three quarters of all startups fail, it is critical for entrepreneurs to be motivated by more than money. As a team of aspiring entrepreneurs, we are grateful for the rich set of resources that Duke offers to support new ventures. From concept development to funding to personalized mentoring, Duke has given us the supportive environment we need to turn our idea into a real opportunity.


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