Jake Prusky ’22 and Evan Haug ’21 are two of the co-founders of Leaf Solar Design, which has been invited to the finals of the American Made Solar Award competition
From thinking to doing
By Hannah Jackson ’24
Classroom lessons can be lasting for ThinkEnergy fellows, as a promising startup shows.
As ThinkEnergy fellows at the Great Lakes Energy Institute, students learn from experts about trends and opportunities in the energy industry. They also learn how to confront a problem with a business plan, the better to become innovators and change agents themselves.
A recent startup, Leaf Solar Designs, illustrates how campus lessons can be a springboard to impactful work. The founders of Leaf—five young alumni of the Case School of Engineering—continued to develop their company at the close of their fellowships. Prize money and attention followed.
In April, Leaf was awarded $100,000 and invited to the finals of the American-Made Solar Competition, which is sponsored by the U.S Department of Energy. As they vie for the grand prize this fall, the young founders will be showcasing their engineering and business savvy on a national stage.
Members of the Leaf team–Evan Haug ’21, Ben Trabold ’21, Jake Prusky ’22, Kehley Coleman ’22 and Cooper Reif ’22–say the ThinkEnergy program prepared them for what they would have to tackle at elite competitions and taught them how to be an investment-worthy startup.
“We couldn’t be more prepared for the competitions we’re engaging in,” said Haug, an electrical engineer and the company CEO. “GLEI gave us the foundation to do what we’re doing.”
As it celebrates its 15th anniversary, GLEI is looking to its alumni to help launch the next generation of energy innovators and industry leaders.
“Our fellows are going to be the energy ambassadors of the future,” said Jonathan Steirer, the program manager for the ThinkEnergy fellowships.
Steirer said he has seen the students of the past two years lean into their curiosities to see all the possibilities that clean energy has in store for them and our future.
“This program has showed that they’re bright energy innovators,” he said.
Aiming to innovate
The Great Lakes Energy Institute was launched in 2008 at the Case School of Engineering with the aim of advancing the region into a new energy age by supporting faculty research and creating partnerships with industry. In 2015, the ThinkEnergy fellowships were introduced as a means of bringing students into that effort. They have since become a signature program supported in part by the Case Alumni Foundation.
Each year, GLEI selects a new cohort of 10 to 15 fellows who have expressed a passion for energy innovation. The students are immersed in a 12-month crash course on energy issues, from renewable energy to energy policy and economics. Grouped into startup teams, they are challenged to design business solutions for a problem in the energy world.
Some of those teams become companies. For example, two of the students in the Boundary Labs team of 2018 went on to found Workbench.io and later Factored Quality. Others have sent their members into industry and academia and on to national research labs.
The Leaf team, part of the 2021 class of fellows, chose to focus on one of the engineering challenges of installing solar arrays.
Wiring together solar panels, called stringing, requires an understanding of how different configurations affect the performance of the array. Aiming to streamline the tedious work, the Leaf team created an AutoCAD plug-in that engineers can use to quickly find optimum stringing designs. It’s one of several tools they are developing to automate solar installation projects.
The campus project blossomed into a prize-winning startup.
While still students, the Leaf team won a first place prize of $4,000 in ideaLabs 2021, a pitch competition featuring student teams from Northeast Ohio universities.
With the support of Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub, they continued to develop the business as graduates with full-time jobs. In April, the team was awarded $7,500 for a first place finish in the idea track of the Morgenthaler-Pavey Startup Competition, which is sponsored by CWRU. That set up the company for the American-Made Solar Competition, where they were one of eight finalists chosen from a nationwide pool. The team is scheduled to compete for a $500,000 grand prize in Las Vegas in September.
Grant Goodrich, the executive director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute, said the alumni fellows are helping the institute to achieve its mission.
“We want to see Case grads leading in the energy space across the nation,” he said. “We want to see them come back to GLEI and support our future fellows. Case alumni have built a powerful network in energy. We’re very excited to see past students give back to future generations and share their expertise.”
To aid that effort, GLEI is working to rally graduates of the program into an affinity group. ThinkEnergy alumni are planning to hold their first reunion at Homecoming 2023 in October.
The Case Alumni Foundation is also adding to the momentum. At its June meeting, the CAF board approved a three year continuation of support for the ThinkEnergy Fellows program. The foundation will continue to provide $20,000 in annual funding for the 10 undergraduate fellows, each of whom will receive a $2,000 scholarship aimed at allowing them to focus on their energy-related research.
“The Great Lakes Energy Institute has had great success with its ThinkEnergy Fellowships,” said Ron Cass ’84, the immediate past president of the Case Alumni Foundation. “Their graduates are launching careers in energy innovation with leading-edge companies and government labs. The Case Alumni Foundation is thrilled to support this valuable program.”
Kehley Coleman ’22 is the CMO of Leaf.
Evan Haug ’22 is the CEO of Leaf.
Cooper Reif ’22 is the COO of Leaf.
Molly Egan, in pink, was part of the Nu-H2 pitch team that discussed pink hydrogen.
GLEI ANNIVERSARY RECEPTION
The Great Lakes Energy Institute will celebrate 15 years of energy innovation and education with a Homecoming Weekend reception fea-turing former and current ThinkEnergy Fellows. Learn more about the fellowship program and enjoy refreshments: 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, October 13, White Building