A CMC student startup is on the world stage

Richard Zajac

Rich Zajac '16 Rich Zajac '16

An alternative fuel venture started by two CMC students has landed them the distinct honor of being chosen among 100 innovators internationally to present their startup on a world stage in Moscow, Oct. 31 through Nov. 12.

Rich Zajac ’16 flew to Russia’s capital this week to present NexDrive, the natural-gas vehicle venture he founded with Louis-Victor Jadavji ’15.

He will pitch, present and network with a who’s who of government leaders, investors, innovators and business executives from around the world at the Open Innovations Expo— billed as “a global platform created to introduce Russian and international innovative products and technologies, to share experience in realization of successful innovative projects, and to enable effective interaction between exhibitors, government, business and science institutions.”

Zajac says the high profile nature of the event, exposure and networking opportunities will be very valuable.

lv Louis-Victor Jadavji '15

“[This event gives us] the ability… to expand our horizons for the future by looking at new markets that have been traditionally underserved by alternative fuel.”

A few notables expected to be in attendance at the event include Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, distinguished journalists, world business leaders and renowned entrepreneurs, including Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group.

NexDrive is a full-service Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicle converter currently in early-stage rollout, ramping up its operation refitting conventional gasoline engines to run partially on natural gas.

The company offers a variety of natural gas vehicle products and services, including refueling platforms, compressing stations, and other solutions. It also now structures leasing packages to bundle CNG compressors with dual-fuel cars for consumers and commercial trucks for fleet customers.

The roots of the idea for NexDrive can be traced back to 2008, when in the midst of a spike in gas prices, Zajac started driving a compressed natural gas-powered Honda Civic, in part to convince his family to find an alternative to their gas guzzling SUV.

Zajac and Jadavji, who met as members of the Claremont Colleges Debate Union, started the venture just last year, admiring Rich’s CNG Civic and recognizing some of the advantages of natural gas over electric and other alternatives. One big advantage to CNG is that no special engines are required, existing combustion engines can be fitted to burn CNG.

Within days of hatching the idea for the enterprise, the two hopped on a plane to China to connect with CNG equipment manufacturers.

“We had no contacts,” says Jadavji. “I’m an intermediate Mandarin speaker, so I started cold-calling people.” He says they often had to call 20 or 30 times to get to the decision-makers, but their persistence paid off as they started moving through the gatekeepers to the chief executives of the companies. They met with the CEO of one of the largest CNG equipment manufacturers in the world. Another executive actually flew in from another Chinese city to meet them.

They also had to do their business dealings on a shoe-string budget: “Instead of staying at the fancy hotels, we’d ask [our business contacts] to meet us at the fancy hotels. We learned how to do things like that to save money,” says Jadavji.

Back stateside, the two connected with veteran engineers in the natural gas field who helped them understand the technology and its applications.

Both say CMC has been a supportive place for their ventures, including a 3D printing business which creates parts for vintage cars.

“CMC stood out in the ability it provided me, even as an underclassman, to allow me the latitude to impact the local community and beyond,” says Zajac, who mentions the access to professors and great courses of study as big pluses. “I feel like more than just a number here.”

He continues: “The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship… has been an incredible resource and opportunity for me to have a place to work 24 hours a day… I’m able to have a real street address, mailing address, a phone number-- that gives us legitimacy as a primarily student-led entrepreneurial organization.”

He also cites the support and advice from faculty in helping navigate the regulatory and business environment. “We can draw on the experience of people who have been there with first-hand experience in the trenches.”

Jadavji agrees: “I’ve had tremendous practice pitching. CIE has been so good at getting me out there in front of people, so I could do this,” he says. “KLI [Kravis Leadership Institute] has [also] been supportive. I love that eagerness to help the student entrepreneurs across campus. Once you’ve told them what you wish to achieve, they’re all in.”

Both say a big part of what drives them going forward is helping countries be more energy independent while helping the environment.

“I like to leave people, places and businesses better than I found them,” says Zajac.

As the world looks to cleaner energy sources, the two are primed to do just that. 


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