As part of Aalto’s Product Development Project (PdP) course, IDBM student Utshav Bhattarai initiated his own idea, “Carbon Eaters”, an algae bioreactor for industries. After successfully building a prototype, he and his teammate are pushing forward with “Carbon Eaters” as a venture. Through the EIT HEI C-ACCELERATE project, IDBM had the opportunity to support Utshav’s PdP project team with some of their prototyping and project-related expenses.
From an idea to a product to a venture
Utshav “Ubi” Bhattarai joined the IDBM programme in 2021 from the TECH side after previously working as a mechanical designer at KONE. While spending his winter holidays back home in Nepal, an entrepreneurial idea emerged.
He recalls: “The idea didn't just come out of the blue, but there’s a story behind it. I was involved in a startup led by my friends, focusing on R&D work around an algae bioreactor. That set off something in me and I got inspired. So many people in the Western world discuss sustainability and decarbonization. So, I thought: why not? Let’s embed this in the local context of Finland and then try to build a product. Something that industries can really look forward to.”
After finishing the first year of his IDBM major studies, and with the idea in mind, Ubi participated in the PdP course held at Aalto Design Factory. The course brings students from different schools together to collaborate with an industry partner on their challenges, closely mirroring real-world working conditions, emphasizing experimentation, failure, and interdisciplinary teamwork. For Ubi, this course presented a chance to make his idea tangible.
“I pitched my idea to the head of Aalto design factory, Kalevi “Eetu” Ekman, knowing that I needed help to refine it. Luckily, he said: ‘Yes, of course.’ Together, we adjusted the concept to fit companies and what would be desirable for them.”
That was just the beginning, as, unlike the other projects working with an established organization, Ubi had to start everything from scratch, including finding his teammates.
“People at first were like: who is this mad guy? But eventually, I could convince a good group to build a prototype together. It took nine months and was oftentimes challenging, as there were seven different people from different backgrounds in my team. For example, biotechnology students and designers follow different processes and wanted to steer the project in different directions. Somehow, we fixed it and could agree on a direction.
“On top of that, I was the project initiator, sponsor, and project manager all by myself. Usually, when students do the PDP project, they have a sponsor who guides them. In our case, all team members had the liberty to steer the project, which required us to build trust.
“Another challenge was money because we didn't have any. Student teams usually get €10,000 to develop a product in a company collaboration. But in our case, we had to seek funding by ourselves, which was a different process. It was one of the toughest parts for me.”
People at first were like: who is this mad guy? - Utshav "Ubi" Bhattarai
Eventually, the team successfully built a prototype that was recently presented at the PdP Gala in May 2023. And for Ubi and his team member, Jarno Lauronen, the journey is not yet finished. Together, they decided to establish Carbon Eaters as a venture.
“We plan to start step by step, beginning with validating the product market fit with our target customers, which are oil and energy companies who are producing a high amount of CO2 emissions and are under pressure to achieve this decarbonization goal. We want to leverage the MVP (minimum viable product) to connect with them.”
Furthermore, they will apply to different programs and accelerators to polish their business idea and seek for funding. “We need to build another prototype, but our product is enormous and costly.”
The value of a multidisciplinary and entrepreneurial approach to education
Even before he got started with the Carbon Eaters project, Ubi was no stranger to Design Factory, the space where many of the IDBM and PdP lectures and workshops take place. “I got to know PdP and what they do, there. Possibly, if it was not for IDBM I would not have heard about the course.”
While completing his IDBM major studies, he spent a lot of time in multidisciplinary teams, solving challenges with design thinking. “Of course, IDBM really helped, especially looking back on the Industry Project and IDBM Challenge. The design thinking processes that we follow in IDBM could not fully be translated to PdP, but there are certain aspects we can apply to product development. Maybe this is the biggest thing that IDBM gave me to use: A mindset and way of doing things” Utshav reflects on how his IDBM experiences shaped his approach to PdP.
Maybe this is the biggest thing that IDBM gave me to use: A mindset and way of doing things. - Utshav "Ubi" Bhattarai
“It’s great to see how courses being offered by IDBM and (Aalto) Design Factory, who are both part of the C-ACCELERATE project on the Aalto side, can support students in exploring and developing their entrepreneurial skills and mindset. There is no clear definition for the entrepreneurial mindset as such, but skills such as leadership, teamwork, creativity, and the willingness to take risks can all certainly be included – and these are all certainly explored and tested within our courses” says Apurva Ganoo, Doctoral Researcher and IDBM faculty member.
“For us, Ubi’s PDP Project provided us with an opportunity to directly support a student’s idea during its very early stages by financially supporting some of the prototyping and project expenses that the team incurred during the course. While our courses can certainly provide unique learning opportunities, sometimes we just need to (financially) support students with experimenting and prototyping their ideas.”
Through the funding he received, Ubi was supported in taking a new angle to the project, introducing an entrepreneurial approach.
“No one goes to PdP and tells them: I want to build this product; would you help me? Usually, students want to work with industry partners. I was very different, and maybe, I could be an example for future IDBM students who have a product in their mind that they want to make real.”
(...) maybe, I could be an example for future IDBM students who have a product in their mind that they want to make real. - Utshav "Ubi" Bhattarai
The opportunity to take the PdP course provided Ubi with many useful learnings for developing a product, starting a venture, and coordinating a team.
“The main learning is: it's not easy to build something. It's easy to imagine or design on a CAD software but turning it into reality is difficult, from an engineering point of view. I had learned about this process of prototyping ideas, and testing and iterating. I got a chance to apply that in IDBM and PdP. And since I was a project initiator, I also learned a lot about communicating the idea and the product to different people in a convincing way.”
Future student entrepreneurs in IDBM
For the IDBM faculty, Utshav’s PdP project was something of a pilot for something they could do more in the future within the programme. “As an example, our courses like the IDBM Challenge, Networked Partnering and Product Innovation (NEPPI), or even the Industry Project can result in valuable new concepts and prototypes, and now we potentially have a model for how to support the students to take these ideas further” says Apurva Ganoo.
He continues, “for instance, if we see that some of the ideas or prototypes from IDBM Challenge and NEPPI are interesting, and students are willing to prototype and build on these concepts beyond the scope of the courses, we from the faculty side, could cover some of the necessary prototyping and experimentation costs to help students bring those ideas closer to reality. Once they are further developed, this is also where our ecosystem partners like Aaltoes and their programs like Ignite could come in handy.”
Now we potentially have a model for how to support the students to take these ideas further. - Apurva Ganoo, Doctoral Candidate and IDBM Faculty Member
Through faculty’s support and cases like Carbon Eaters, we might see more IDBM student entrepreneurs in the future. For those who aim to follow an entrepreneurial idea in their studies, Utshav gives the following advice:
“Study a lot before jumping into it. Of course, there are other ways to try and fail and try and fail and keep on trying. But I benefitted from taking some time to study before building a prototype.
“Besides that, it depends on what you aim to do since the domains are different. If you want to build a product-based startup, IDBM and PdP are a great combination.”
Carbon Eaters PdP team members and inventors: Linnea Hammarberg (Life Science Technologies), Shri Vigneshwar Sivakumar (Advanced Technologies), Ahmed Uyair Nazir (Mechanical Engineering), Swetha Authilingam (Advanced Technologies, Svetlana Eggen (Biointegrated Design)
Author: Nicole Hußmann