Published: May 2, 2016
Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan working on a bike

During Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan’s periodic trips to visit family in India she was bothered by the pollutants spewing from the ever-present gasoline-powered rickshaws. She was also disturbed by how hard it was for rickshaw drivers to make ends meet due to the expense of the fuel.

So, the Superior, Colorado, native set out to find a solution.

Applying an entrepreneurial mindset to a practical engineering approach, Gopalakrishnan came up with a hybrid electric conversion kit for small vehicles in developing countries. Then, she and a team of other former and current business and engineering students created a company – Surya Conversions – so she could actively attract investors, manufacturer the product and get them to developing nations.

Now, Gopalakrishnan, one of two Outstanding Graduates for Service in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, has a clear path after graduation: Getting Surya to really take off.

Her Boulder-based enterprise is already attracting attention. She and her team won the Social Impact Prize as part of CU-Boulder’s New Venture Challenge in spring 2014 – along with $3,000, and, in November 2015 she and her teammates wowed a crowd at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce Esprit Venture Challenge and won the $10,000 top prize.

The team estimates a kit will cut a rickshaw’s emissions by 33 percent each day, the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the roads of India. They will institute a payment plan that allows rickshaw drivers to pay off their kits over the course of the year, with payments offset by savings in gas. After that initial year, the team estimates drivers’ income will increase 33 percent due to their fuel savings.

Gopalakrishnan plans to travel to India in August to do some ‘rigorous testing’ of the conversion kits for efficiency and emissions reduction.

Gopalakrishnan, an engineering physics major who is minoring in dance, credits her diverse experiences at CU-Boulder - the New Venture Challenge in particular and her work in labs - with helping her make a plan and forge the type of connections that are so important in the startup world. She’s also president of the CU Energy Club. 

“The experiences I had at CU-Boulder set me on a trajectory to succeed at growing the company and making an impact on the lives of rickshaw drivers, and on the lives of people through the reduction of pollution,” she said.

Gopalakrishnan also credits her major of engineering physics with setting her up for success. Ironically, she struggled to master physics in high school and confesses it was her most difficult subject. At CU-Boulder, though, she was able to tap into a support network and make it through the program, which has emboldened her. A couple professors in particular assured her you don’t have to have a special gene or form of intuition to master physics, you just have to understand how you think about physics and how you learn.

“I can take on a lot of challenges that come my way in the future, such as growing the company to where I’d like to see it,” she said. “Successfully completing this major has given me a lot of confidence.”

She has also learned to connect physics to just about everything, including dance.

“Physics teaches you so much about the world. It’s a good foundation for so many other things. It’s really neat when you learn about it - how a part of our everyday lives it is.”