Alumnus Tirthak Saha: From India to Drexel to Startup

Alumnus Tirthak Saha is terrible at origami. This is not normally a disadvantage for those seeking engineering degrees. In fact, in his case, it was a plus. Looking at the ancient paper-folding art as a non-practitioner, Saha (electrical engineering, ’16) realized its mathematical properties could be adopted to conserve space on satellite solar panels: they, too, could be folded.

It’s the kind of adroit connection that talented engineers—even “scattered” engineers, as Saha described himself—make between random fields to create dramatic solutions. The idea drove a senior design project for NASA while Saha was at Drexel. It also led in a roundabout way to his being named in 2018 as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30,” the annual compendium of the young and gifted.

Tirthak Saha
Tirthak Saha at the Forbes Under 30 Summit

Look Saha up on the Forbes website and you’ll find a golden Drexel dragon at the bottom of the page, underneath his “30 Under 30” creds. That’s something Saha, who was born in Delhi, India, is especially proud of. It was at the College of Engineering that he learned, like so many young engineers, to appreciate how his mind works, when to wrangle it under control and when to just turn it loose.  

“It’s very difficult for a person like me to thrive in a typical academic environment. And what I mean by that is, I have a very scattered brain. That’s just how I work,” said Saha, who came to Drexel as a transfer student in 2014 from the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka, India. “I have the bandwidth to take in a lot of information. What I do then is take the diverse pieces of information and tie them together to form a creative solution.

“The problem with that is, it’s not suited to a structured academic environment where you have to have intense focus and a pre-assigned task,” he added. “So, when I got to Drexel, I was really struggling and trying to find how to merge my abilities with the way they wanted me to do things.”

Designing with NASA

One evening several years ago while he was still an undergraduate, Saha was sitting in a Drexel library casting about for a design project that would accommodate his quirky interests. He suddenly recalled a trip to an origami museum he had taken as a boy, and how intrigued he’d been there with a folded flower and a paper crane.

“I thought, what if we took the mathematics of those folds and applied them to folding these solar panel systems that necessarily have to be large. We can make them smaller and smaller and put them on satellites, where space is a commodity,” he said. “Then, I did some research and found others were doing kind of the same thing, but for much larger systems. So, I focused on CubeSats, the 10x10x11 centimeter miniature satellites, and that’s how it started.”

Saha built out a theoretical proposal on the idea and approached Dr. Ajmal Yousuff, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics, who liked the idea and agreed to mentor him. The project was called Sunbird, and had a team of four undergraduates.

“He is a well-talented individual,” said Yousuff. “What I found unique in him was his intrinsic ability to foresee manufacturing issues and constraints, and incorporate them into the product’s design phase. This ability helped his team to move their prototype efficiently from design to production.”

The Sunbird CubeSat design project formed the foundation of a strong, hands-on resume and a future full of promise. Which is how Saha came to be contemplating origami during a phone interview one morning last month, having left one of the country’s most powerful electric companies to co-found a company of his own.

Philadelphia Dragons

Saha could have had his pick of American universities, but several qualities drew him to CoE. Ever since he was a boy growing up in India “with a frustrating lack of access and opportunities,” he had wanted to study abroad. Everyone around him talked of New York and San Francisco. But in the end, it was Philadelphia itself that sealed the deal.

“I spent months and months looking at different places. I knew Philadelphia is really where America started from a history perspective. I wanted to start from the roots and then travel my way up,” said Saha. “I thought, I’m going to spend two years at a place studying, so I might as well go somewhere that’s going to build up my knowledge of this country. So, I started from there.”

He credits CoE in particular with giving him the room to grow in several directions – as an international student with international peers; as a young man who needed support to pursue his own ideas in his own way; and as an intellectual who enjoyed going to “brilliant” professors to have his questions answered.

“Basically, I was looking for as large a sandbox as I could get to play in so that I could go and unleash all the different parts of me equally,” said Saha. “I’m glad that I could do all the things I wanted at Drexel. It was a full-capacity environment.”

After graduation, Saha worked as a grid modernization engineer for AEP for nearly two years. He reviewed assigned portions of AEP grids, designing methods to bring them up to snuff. Both consumer demand and technological advances are taking their toll on a national grid system designed over 100 years ago, said Saha. In addition, the issue of sustainable energy finds almost no quarter in the electric industry as it stands today. Upgrades of the nation’s grids, if not a total re-design, are essential, said Saha.

As an engineer at AEP, Saha won second place in the company’s “Spark Tank Innovation Challenge.” He built up a multi-million-dollar portfolio of Smart Grid projects that will underpin AEP’s modernization program in nine midwestern states for years to come and generate an estimated $1 billion in revenue, if implemented. That company success caught the attention of others working in the energy field. Then came the Forbes award. After that, said Saha, he felt he had a “real” platform from which to go forward.

“I thought, now I can actually start working.”

A Startup of His Own

In September, Saha and a partner co-founded Trolysis, Inc. in Palo Alto, CA. He bills it as a renewable energy company working to develop solutions to energy and climate change challenges through clean hydrogen-production technology. It’s a complex undertaking with a simple goal: power for all. With so many countries and states planning to be powered almost entirely by renewable energy in the coming decades, the inability to rely solely on solar and wind power will be a recurring problem, said Saha. His team aims to close this gap by producing zero-emissions hydrogen on-demand, using only waste aluminum recovered from landfills and water.

Tirthak Saha
Tirthak Saha ’16 at the offices of Trolysis, Inc. in Palo Alto, CA

“Power in this day and age is not a luxury. It cannot be anything but a basic human right,” said Saha. “I started working along those lines way back in 2012, and now I’ve come full circle. I’ve done my time, educated myself, worked with AEP—one of the biggest players in the industry. Now, I’ve gotten together with my co-founder and said, let’s do this. It’s risky, but someone needs to.”

For motivation, he draws from the support of his parents and from the examples of public figures whose charismatic personalities serve as an extension of their creativity: inventor Elon Musk; astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson; the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman; and Indian film actor/producer Shah Rukh Khan, who attended the same high school in Delhi as Saha.

In addition, as a way of bridging what he does with public perceptions of science and technology, Saha writes a blog called The Futurist Archives. In it, he breaks down complex modern innovations for the layperson “in fun and relatable ways.”

Reflecting on his days at Drexel, Saha stressed that engineers need both resiliency and mental fortitude as they design solutions to today’s daunting global problems.

“Someone else’s answers give me answers for my work, and then I can use that synergy. That’s something my dad taught me,” said Saha. “It’s all a network. You never know what small impact your work is going to have, every day. And then, with a little luck, that turns into a snowball effect.”