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Meet Viviane Nguyen of PolarPanel in Rice Military Area

Today we’d like to introduce you to Viviane Nguyen.

Viviane, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
What do Tyson chicken wings and Coors beer have in common? Besides being two elements to a great party, they are both products of great refrigerated transportation. No one usually gives any thought to refrigerated transport, but a school project turned Forbes Under 30 startup is how we got the world to care a little more about good ole refrigerated transportation.

My co-founders (Brad Cathcart & Juan Pablo Pimienta) and I started our solar energy startup, PolarPanel, as part of our senior project in the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston. We were tasked with creating a business model around solar refrigeration technology. With our CEO’s background in rail, we saw the need in the refrigerated transportation industry for this solar energy.

PolarPanel uses solar energy to refrigerate perishable goods (food, medicine, and cosmetics) during transport and promote a cleaner solution by reducing diesel consumption and emissions. We’ve pitched at eight competitions in North America and won over $45,000 that same year including funding from MIT and the US Department of Energy.

Hearing all the great feedback we’ve gotten really validated our concept, and we continued to grow PolarPanel after graduating May 2018. Since then, we’ve been recognized as 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Listmakers in Energy, added an engineer to our team, created a small scale prototype, gathered research data, and are currently applying to grants to fund our next step– a full-scale operational prototype.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
We spent many late nights drafting our business plan, prepping for competitions, and rehearsing our lines. We wanted to make sure everything that made PolarPanel such a great business was communicated effectively during our pitch.

It was difficult to put this much work into our startup and handle being full-time students at the same time, but everything was worth it once we started winning competitions and getting great feedback. We’re grateful for the resources and teachings we had as Entrepreneurship students at the Wolff Center. Had it not been for the program, we would have had a significantly more challenging time breaking into the startup world.

Please tell us about PolarPanel.
PolarPanel retrofits current refrigerated railcars, trucks, and container units with solar panels to store energy in the walls of the unit (in the form of ice) to keep refrigerated goods cool during transport between cooling warehouses. Current solutions have large diesel generators that require constant fuel management and are affected by industry-wide emissions regulations that require generators to be replaced every seven years for $25,000 per unit. Our solution extends the lifetime of our customers’ refrigeration units and reduces those expenses and logistical headaches.

I’m really proud of our sustainability mission. With climate change being at the forefront of global concerns, putting research and support in cleantech startups like PolarPanel will be a huge step in the right direction for an overlooked polluting industry.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
Everything happens for a reason, I wouldn’t do anything differently! (But it would’ve been great to win a few more competitions *wink*)

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