Chatting over coffee on campus, Michael Wong glances down at his buzzing phone.
“Congratulations” text messages are rolling in. He realizes a note from Penn President Amy Gutmann just hit his classmates’ emails: Wong had been selected for one of the acclaimed innovation prizes, worth $150,000.
The news was out, and 23-year-old Wong was beaming. But he quickly got back to business.
“I am so grateful, and there is such a sense of relief, but any accomplishment we make, I don’t like to stay on it too long,” he says. “Because we’re not done yet.”
Wong, a first-generation, low-income Wharton student from Oakland, California, who is concentrating in entrepreneurship management, finance, and marketing and operations management, earned the President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) to boost his startup InstaHub, which he started in 2016. Working with Dayo Adewole, a doctoral candidate in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the pair designed a snap-on motion sensor device that attaches onto existing light switches. It is battery powered, with occupancy sensing capabilities, and is easy to install.
The most important aspect of the product, says Wong, is that it eliminates the need for large, timely and costly rewiring projects, while also maintaining cutting-edge sensors and analytics, which turn on lights when people enter rooms and off when they leave.
“The philosophy is we need to erase our obvious energy waste ASAP,” Wong says.
His plan is to market the product, which he and his team have been developing at South Philadelphia makerspace NextFab, to the commercial sector first, and evolve it over time for use in personal homes. Wong also expects InstaHub, with its ability to make big change without replacing existing infrastructure, will be a model for other innovations addressing water, food, and energy waste.
“I think InstaHub is very promising,” says Katherine Klein, a Wharton management professor and vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “This is still a very early stage company, so I’m sure InstaHub’s products and business model will evolve over time. But, at its core, this company will always be about creating financially sustainable positive environmental impact. Given intensifying concerns about climate change, the company is not only good for the environment, it’s also an effective business proposition.”
Klein first met Wong three years ago in her Knowledge for Social Impact course.
“He is a great student in the deepest sense of the word,” she says of Wong. “For Michael, it’s not about getting good grades—though he does get good grades. It’s about learning, thinking, absorbing new knowledge, and then using that knowledge to make the world a better place. He is at once humble and driven. That’s a rare and tremendously winning combination.”
Wong has always been a “green” thinker. Back at Skyline High, where he went to high school, he was part of Green Academy, taking sustainability classes. He was hooked quickly: Being more energy efficient became an everyday part of his life.
That’s why, during his first couple years at Penn, he became intrigued by things like lights left on, and always-running escalators in buildings on campus—even at night, when they weren’t being used.
“My first thought was, I wonder how much energy we are wasting?” says Wong. “So, I decided to survey students, through email, flyers, and in person. I didn’t only ask if they left lights on, but also about the perception of their energy waste. I also came up with my own model, of what I thought we were wasting.”
As Wong and Adewole were creating their first prototype for InstaHub, Wong reached out to David Mazzocco, the associate director of sustainability and projects at Wharton Operations.
“He just ‘cold-emailed’ me,” Mazzocco says. “That sums up Michael’s personality well. He is not shy about reaching out to people to ask questions. He just wants to learn and keep growing.”
Since one of Mazzocco’s tasks is monitoring energy use in all Wharton buildings, he was able to help Wong build early models for what kind of impact his product could have.
Mazzocco helped connect Wong with Facilities and Real Estate Services’ Environmental Sustainability Director Dan Garofalo, and soon enough, Wong had received a Green Fund grant to test his product. Mazzocco signed on to be Wong’s adviser for the project.
“You can just sense Michael’s passion,” says Mazzocco. “It made it easy for me to really want to help him.”
Then began the pilots. InstaHub’s product was—and still is—being beta-tested in offices throughout campus, including Mazzocco’s.
In the midst of product development, and with evidence that the device has potential, came pitch competitions, startup accelerators, and tradeshows. Wong and his team, which grew to include his younger sister, Tiffany Wong, also a Wharton student, participated in Wharton VIP-X, NextFab’s Hardware Accelerator, Penn I-Corps, Hult Prize Accelerator, Fulphil, Westly Prize, Penn’s iDesign Prize, and the #YouthStepUp Climate Challenge. Before PIP, InstaHub had already earned, through various sources, about $40,000, and had the support of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Turner Social Impact Society.
What PIP provides Wong, now, is $100,000 to invest directly into his company, and another $50,000 for living expenses. He takes a deep breath, exhaling—“This money is a great jumping off point,” he says, adding how costly hardware startups can be.
“It helps me on the next stage of my life, which is great, because I didn’t really have a backup plan,” Wong says. “It kind of feels like when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship, when I earned a full ride to Penn, and I had that feeling like, ‘Oh my God, financially, the education will be there.’ It’s that level of relief, and it feels like a lot of dots are connecting.”
Wong notes he will surely utilize the space offered with the prize, at the Pennovation Center, and will continue working on InstaHub in Philadelphia with Adewole, as well as his sister. Wong says he’s grateful to stay close to campus and tuned in with Penn’s entrepreneurial community.
“It gives me a sense of confidence knowing that there’s this network I can continue tapping into,” he says.
When Wong got the call from Gutmann, informing him that he’d won this year’s PIP along with only two others, he was shocked. His worries that he rested on his shoulders, of what would come after his graduation in May, seemed to fade—at least a bit.
“One of the scariest moments of my life suddenly became one of the most exciting,” he says. “I am so ready to continue making an impact.”