NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Param Jaggi dismantled the family computer at the age of 5, it was clear that he wasn’t like the other kindergartners. As he grew older, his penchant for dissecting toys and gadgets graduated into inventing things.
When Jaggi was 13, while watching the exhaust being expelled from an idling car, an idea was planted. He did some research and found that very little was being done to curtail carbon emissions at the source — a vehicle’s tailpipe. So he went to work, and at 15, for a high school science project, he built a device that fits onto the back of a car’s tailpipe and uses algae to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen.
He was recognized by Popular Science magazine as one of the nation’s top 10 high school inventors and won a sustainability award from the Environmental Protection Agency. He was nominated for “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News.
Last year, he was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy category for the second year in a row.
This summer, the Vanderbilt sophomore from Plano, Texas, now 18, started a company, Ecoviate, and is in talks with manufacturers (he wouldn’t disclose names) in hopes of licensing the emissions device, for which a patent was just approved. If he can’t get an agreement, he might try to raise money through investors or grants. But currently, he’s more interested in finding advisers than investors.
“My background is all in science,” he said. “This is the first company I’ve run, so I don’t know too much about the business end.”
During an interview at a Starbucks near Vanderbilt’s campus, Jaggi looked like any other college kid, with a button-up shirt, jeans and backpack in tow. And while he’s in a fraternity and likes to go out on the weekends, most of his time is spent in a makeshift lab in his dorm room.
The roommate he was supposed to have never arrived, so Jaggi has a TV and bed on one side of the room, and on the other, has set up tables with electrical equipment, beakers and a whiteboard with chemistry formulas written on it.
He grows algae in his room, and even has an alcohol burner, which he’s not sure is allowed.
“I leave my door closed at all times,” he said.
He likes to stay up late and often hops out of bed and continues his research as soon as he wakes up.
“He’s not an anti-social kid,” said his father, Pawan Jaggi, an entrepreneur who runs a software company. “But when it comes to his work, this boy can spend 24, 36 hours nonstop, up at 5 a.m. doing his work, because he likes to do it.”
Jaggi stayed up until 3 a.m. the previous night, he said, and woke up in time to quickly do his homework.
The environmental science and economics major admitted he doesn’t always go to some of his introductory-level classes held in large lecture halls, though he said he does all of the work and shows up for tests and quizzes, and goes to all of his science classes.
“College gives me that security net,” he said. “If all else fails, I’ll still have a good degree at Vanderbilt.”
But when he’s in class, he’s often thinking about Ecoviate, he said, and he admitted that if the company takes off, “I’ll drop out without even thinking about it.”
Jaggi wants Ecoviate to be more than a one-product company, and he has several other inventions.
He would disclose only one, an add-on part for electric cars that captures and reuses excess heat and wind energy.
Another Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient, Chicago high school senior Johnny Cohen, recently joined to be Ecoviate’s chief technology officer.
Cohen developed aerodynamic Plexiglas shields that fit on buses and increase fuel efficiency. “He worked on the front end of the bus,” Jaggi said, “and my research was on the back end.”
Currently, the focus is creating cheap products that are disposable, which Jaggi said is the only way he sees green technology being able to catch on with consumers.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the idea that green tech is dead,” he said. “People say that it will never take off. I think that’s just a lack of sustainability.”
The algae device, which lasts a month before it’s completely disposed from a tailpipe and reduces carbon emissions by about 60 percent, he said, costs $8 to make and probably would be sold for $15 to $20, he said.
Jaggi has a ways to go before that happens. And between fine-tuning his inventions, developing new products, seeking out advisers and connecting with manufacturers, he has plenty of work ahead of him.
But for now, those things had to wait. He had only a few minutes to get to class.