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Areas with heavy fracking activity are marked by patterns of pipelines, roads, and well pads.

Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Gordon/Creative Commons

Two Penn seniors are creating a startup to save the environment.

Wharton and Engineering seniors Ashwin Amurthur and Teddy Guenin are in the process of launching a company that will help limit the environmental impact of fracking. GFET-Frack Technologies will help drilling companies detect trace amounts of harmful fracking fluids leaked into the groundwater.

Amurthur and Guenin are the 2015 recipients of Y-Prize, a competition that encourages student teams to propose innovative commercial applications for technology invented by Penn researchers. The pair was awarded $5,000 and the licensing rights to Graphene technology — which could help to detect chemical leakage — to launch their company.

Amurthur and Guenin are developing a Graphene sensor to detect chemical compounds that are found in very trace concentrations and fracking fluids. The technology will both enable drilling companies to minimize contamination and enable municipalities to protect public groundwater reservoirs.

Amurthur and Guenin emphasized that the company has a strong focus on environmental protection. “It’s really important for the environment and for its citizens to have clean water,” Amurthur said. “Everyone wants to drink clean water.”

The pair was inspired by the news coverage of the recent New York Fracking Ban, and they hope to bring reform to the existing fracking process.

“We can actually be the people that help the New York officials decide whether fracking is safe and whether it’s not,” Amurthur said.

Amurthur and Guenin believe that Penn’s recent investments in the STEM fields have significantly contributed to their success. They were also helped by the Penn Center for Innovation, the Mack Institute for Innovation Management and professors Luke Taylor and A.T. Charlie Johnson.

“Over the past two years, Penn spent a lot of money and resources on startup things to help people like us out,” Guenin said.

Before the competition, the pair talked to representatives from drilling companies such as Schlumberger, which does fracking operations.

“We received feedback from them on what they do to solve the problems that we’ve identified,” Guenin said. “We’re innovating to apply the technology in a new industry.”

The pair sees Y-Prize as the first step in developing their startup.

“It takes a lot of effort to start a company, and we’re very happy that we were awarded the prize and the licensing rights,” Guenin said.

“It’s a validation,” Amurthur added, “and we realized that we got to go on.”

Amurthur and Guenin believe that their team spirit contributes to the development of their ideas.

“We trust each other. Whenever problems arise, we can always resolve it the next day,” Guenin said, adding that their work ethics are “virtually identical.” They described their partnership as “relaxed, hardworking and amusing.”

Guenin and Amurthur believe teamwork is extremely important for new startups in general. “It’s hard to do in one person, and you should feel super comfortable with the co-founder,” Guenin said.

As seniors, Amurthur and Guenin both plan to continue working closely on their project together after graduation.

Ultimately, they see their project as a launching pad. “It starts the talk and the discussion with Penn about how we can work together to create a company and a successful product out of something that was previously only restricted to a laboratory,” Guenin said.

The team is also actively reaching out to companies and institutions such as environmental journalism website StateImpact Pennsylvania, a division of National Public Radio, for additional support and developmental advice. “We sent out hundreds of emails this week only,” Guenin said. The team is also planning to test new samples to ensure the accuracy of its results.

“We’re currently going forward creating the company and the contexts. We’re definitely going full step on this,” Amurthur said.

“It’s the start of a real company and [we want] to make something out of it,” Guenin added.

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