NIRBY Wins $50,000 Perlman Grand Prize in Startup Challenge presented by Venture Lab at the University of Pennsylvania

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PHILADELPHIA, April 18, 2024 – The University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab is pleased to announce the winner of its annual Startup Challenge: Nirby, founded by Piotr Lazarek SEAS’25 W’25. Nirby is a real-time soil analytics and farmland management tool for large agricultural enterprises, leveraging satellite data and proprietary drone systems to deliver actionable insights within minutes. The tool enables up to 40% savings on fertilizer expenses and up to 15% increase in crop yields. 

Lazarek created Nirby after realizing he could adjust a Mars rover he was building to another frontier: farming.

“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 dollars essentially disappearing into thin air every single year,” says Lazarek. “Our system reduces unnecessary fertilizer use, cuts down on CO2 emissions, and improves crop yields.”

For the third year in a row, the Startup Challenge was held in Tangen Hall, the University’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation on April 12, 2024. Nirby was selected from a field of eight finalist teams—including LilyLoop and Probook—who advanced from nearly 30 semifinalists. For the finals, teams pitched a panel of alumni judges and a live audience of nearly 150 attendees as they competed for over $250,000 in cash prizes, in-kind support, and other invaluable resources to launch their startups. 

“This year’s Venture Lab Startup Challenge was the most competitive and the most inspiring ever!” says Lori Rosenkopf, Simon and Midge Palley Professor of Management and Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. “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.”

The Startup Challenge marks the end of another exciting year of entrepreneurship across the Penn community. Students engaged in entrepreneurial programming are founding, developing, and scaling companies utilizing the multitude of resources available within the Penn and Philadelphia ecosystems. Venture Lab, powered by the Wharton School, is proud to continue to be a leader in entrepreneurship education.

The 2024 Startup Challenge winners are:

  • Richard and Ellen Perlman Grand Prize: $50,000 to Nirby; Piotr Lazarek, SEAS’25 W’25
  • William G. Simpson and R. Drew Kistler Startup Challenge Award: $25,000 to Odyssey Notebooks LLC; Laan (Rainbow) Yeung, WG’24
  • The Ashton Family Award: $15,000 to LilyLoop; Kylie Chang, ENG’27 W’27, Neha Chelamkuri, C’27 W’27, Rima Chavali, C’27 W’27
  • The Linn Family Innovation Prize: $10,000 to Robin; Kevin Lu, ENG’26, Kyle Zhang, ENG’26 W’26, Sunny Wang, ENG’26 W’26, Bach Tran, ENG’26
  • The Launch Award: $10,000 to Jochi; Yash Dhir, ENG’24, Rahul Nambiar, ENG’24 GEN’24
  • The Robert S. Blank New Venture Collaboration Award: $10,000 to LilyLoop; Kylie Chang, ENG’27 W’27, Neha Chelamkuri, C’27 W’27, Rima Chavali, C’27 W’27
  • The Thakker Family Startup Challenge Award for Business Analytics: $10,000 to Nirby; Piotr Lazarek, SEAS’25 W’25
  • Frederick H. Gloeckner Undergraduate Award: $10,000 to Jalan Journey Global; Harrison Chong, ENG’27, Harsha Ravindran, LPS’26, Matthew Lowe, ENG’27
  • The Jacobson Social Impact Prize: $10,000 to Nirby; Piotr Lazarek, SEAS’25 W’25
  • The Climate Award, sponsored by Wharton Climate Center at The ESG Initiative: $10,000 to Revise Robotics; Rupesh Jeyaram, WG’ 24, Kara Corley, Antonio Monreal
  • The AI at Wharton Award, sponsored by AI at Wharton: $10,000 each to Jochi; Yash Dhir, SEAS’24, Rahul Nambiar, SEAS’24, and Walnut Research; Alex Kim, W’26, Bruce Lee, SEAS’26, Aiden Lee, SAS’26
  • Audience Choice Award: $10,000 to Jochi; Yash Dhir, ENG’24, Rahul Nambiar, ENG’24 GEN’24
  • Summer Venture Awards, sponsored by S.J. Dilenschneider, W’28 Summer Venture Award; Thakker Family Summer Venture Awards; William F. Holekamp Summer Venture Awards; and Entrepreneurship Venture Award Fund; $10,000 each to: 
    • Ice&Cream (Soft Freezing), Jose Saiz, SEAS’25, WG’25
    • Nirby, Piotr Lazarek, SEAS’25 W’25
    • SphereUs, Ace Kim, W’26; Alima Aset, W’26; Ricky Raup, SEAS’25
    • Oncore, Abhinav Kurada, WG’25; Sruthi Kurada, SEAS’26, W’26
    • MediMint Avanthika Ramesh, WG’25; Abhisri Ramesh
    • Cabrium AI, Sonia Tam, SAS’25; Lakshman Swaminathan, SEAS’26; Arnav Chopra, SEAS’25, W’25
    • Xfood, Anas Alfarra, WG’25; Zifu Wang, WG’25
    • Expert Easy, Naman Jain, WG’25

Previous winners of the Startup Challenge include ToxiSense, a startup that aims to improve the endotoxin testing required for drinking water and biopharma products, and DeToXyFi, which commercializes low-cost, natural water filtration devices.

This year’s Startup Challenge Finals judges:

In-kind Sponsors include Duane Morris LLP, KPMG, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

Note on abbreviations:

  • C – Penn College of Arts & Sciences alum (bachelor’s)
  • ENG – School of Engineering and Applied Science (bachelor’s)
  • G – Penn College of Arts & Sciences (master’s)
  • GEN – School of Engineering & Applied Science (master’s)
  • LPS – College for Liberal and Professional Studies
  • SAS – School of Arts and Sciences
  • SEAS – School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • W – Wharton undergraduate student/alum
  • WG – Wharton MBA student/alum

About Venture Lab at The University of Pennsylvania, Powered by the Wharton School
Venture Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, powered by the Wharton School, is a resource for any Penn student who is interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. We maximize the ability of our students and alumni to address important challenges through entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking. Ignited by great ideas, our faculty, students, and alumni turn innovative concepts into scalable and sustainable businesses and bring entrepreneurial development to existing companies eager for change. In a world hungry for productive innovation, our disciplined approach challenges concepts, focuses ideas, and provides the know-how to turn fledgling businesses into strong, enduring organizations.

About the Wharton School
Founded in 1881 as the world’s first collegiate business school, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is shaping the future of business by incubating ideas, driving insights, and creating leaders who change the world. With a faculty of more than 235 renowned professors, Wharton has 5,000 undergraduateMBAexecutive MBA, and doctoral students. Each year 100,000 professionals from around the world advance their careers through Wharton Executive Education’s individual, company-customized, and online programs, and thousands of pre-collegiate students explore business concepts through Wharton’s Global Youth Program. More than 105,000 Wharton alumni form a powerful global network of leaders who transform business every day. For more information, visit