Penn’s Venture Lab Announces Winner of Annual Startup Challenge

Piotr Lazarek
Piotr Lazarek

The University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab has announced the winner of its highly anticipated annual Startup Challenge. Piotr Lazarek, a junior from Engineering and Wharton, came out on top with Nirby, a groundbreaking, real-time soil analytics and farmland management tool.

Specifically designed for large agricultural enterprises, Nirby utilizes satellite data and proprietary drone systems to provide actionable insights within minutes. This innovative technology enables farmers to achieve remarkable results, including up to 40% savings on fertilizer expenses and up to a 15% increase in crop yields.

Lazarek’s inspiration for Nirby stemmed from an unexpected source. While working on a Mars rover project, he realized the potential to revolutionize farming practices using similar technology. “Sixty-five percent of all fertilizers are never used by crops but instead wash away into our ecosystems, contributing to over 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions. From another perspective, this is $75 billion essentially disappearing into thin air every single year,” explains Lazarek. “Our system reduces unnecessary fertilizer use, cuts down on CO2 emissions and improves crop yields.”

The Startup Challenge, now in its third year, took place on April 12, 2024, at Tangen Hall, the University’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation. Teams were made up of students from Penn Engineering, the Wharton School and the College of Arts and Sciences. They competed for over $250,000 in cash prizes, in-kind support, and other invaluable resources for their startups. Nirby emerged as the winner from the Challenge’s eight finalist teams, who were selected from a pool of nearly 30 semifinalists.

Jeffrey Babin, Professor of Practice in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Associate Director of Engineering Entrepreneurship and Venture Lab’s Engineering Faculty Director, commended Lazarek’s dedication to improving farmland management through innovative technology solutions: “He has been able to leverage his creativity and the many innovation and entrepreneurial resources at Penn to deliver value to farmers and reduce the harm on our environment of over-fertilizing. We always want to encourage and support our students as they solve big problems with technological innovation.”

The Startup Challenge serves as the culmination of a year filled with entrepreneurial endeavors within the Penn community. Students involved in this programming utilize the abundant interdisciplinary resources available within the Penn and Philadelphia ecosystems to actively found, develop and scale new companies.

Lori Rosenkopf, Simon and Midge Palley Professor of Management and Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School, expressed her excitement about this year’s competition. “This year’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge was the most competitive and the most inspiring ever! It is so impressive to see our student ventures making such strong progress across a range of industries, and we are so grateful for the efforts of our judges and our team in support of them.”

To learn more about the Startup Challenge, visit Venture Lab.

This press release has been adapted from the original published by Venture Lab.