All images copyright to Jason Choi.
Jason Choi is a sophomore in Wharton originally from Hong Kong who started PennOrb, an eco-friendly startup that runs on a simple premise: If the glowing ball turns green, the building is using less energy than expected; if it light ups red, the building is using more.
Beginning an entrepreneurial journey
Choi said, “The fall of my freshman year, my friend and I realized that there hasn’t been a huge student effort in leading energy conservation.” After coming up with the idea of creating a ball to help people visualize their environmental footprint, Choi entered PennSustains competition and ended up winning the grand prize of $3,000. At that point, Choi started onboarding friends with experience in marketing and engineering.
PennOrb collects historical consumption level statistics, given the day’s weather, temperature, and access to sunlight, comparing them with historical records. The red color was chosen to prompt feelings of warning and danger. Choi elaborated, “We went through several iterations of the design to try to make it as simple and effective as possible. We had the idea of putting numbers on the orbs, but that’s too complex. We’re experimenting to fully automate this because we’re still manually inputting the calculated results into the physical orb.”
This past semester, the team expanded to the London School of Economics through student collaborations and started pilots of their prototype in the Harrison high-rise dorm in conjunction with the Power Down Challenge, a one-month challenge between College House Residences to reduce energy consumption. Choi explained, “After installing the orb, the Harrison building went from the worst-performing building at Penn to the best. Our surveys with Harrison residents show that 83% of the improvement is attributable to the orb. This is very reassuring, particularly as we move forward with expanding to other schools.”
Passion for impact
Choi doesn’t have current plans to monetize the project and says that it is all about impact. “I was always interested in social entrepreneurship. Back in high school, English paperback imports are pretty expensive, so as a literature lover I asked a local book retailer to sell books at our school at half the retail price. Last summer, I went to Peru to work for an economic development collaborative,” explained Choi, who hopes to one day pursue a for-purpose career.
Plans for expansion
Lately, Choi has been working on building brand awareness among the Penn student body through features in The Huffington Post and The Daily Pennsylvanian, as well as an active website and Facebook page. “Originally, people thought the orbs were Christmas lights because they were red and green. Marketing was very important,” said Choi. Now that he has raised awareness about the purposes of the orb, Choi wants to concentrate on improving the design before pursuing further implementation on Penn’s campus.
Choi continued, “Our exit strategy is to make the orbs a staple in the three High Rises because they are very similar from an infrastructure standpoint and it is easy to compare their performance in the long term. We are also looking into kickstarting initiatives in other universities and potential targets besides London are Canada and Hong Kong.”
As for final takeaways, Choi reiterated the complexity of energy sustainability: “I had the opportunity to work closely with Penn Facilities and I learned how complex it is to solve the energy crisis. Penn is big on green initiatives and spending a lot of energy, but there is much to be improved. Last year alone, we had four Snow Days and I think we lost millions because we didn’t hedge against steam, which is used for heating at Penn. What I’ve learned is that the problem requires both top-down research and student-led initiatives to solve.”