Earthshot Prize Winner Kevin Kung '08 and the Innovation Behind Takachar

Wednesday, Nov 10, 2021
by Claire Shin '25

For his Ph.D. research, Kevin Kung '08 traveled to India, since his funder, MIT's Tata Center, was interested in agricultural design and engineering. While he was there, he witnessed firsthand the pollution Indian farmers generated by burning their agricultural waste, releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide and other harmful chemicals into the air. 

This was Kung's inspiration to co-found Takachar, a company specializing in using that biomass, or plant waste, to generate fertilizer and other helpful products in a way that small farmers can use. Kung's innovation is a method called oxygen-lean torrefaction, in which the biomass is treated to release low-energy molecules, which are captured and converted to solid fuel that machines can use. The resulting biomass is solid, carbon-rich, easy-to-transport fertilizer. Given the novelty of its premise, it's not a surprise that Takachar has experienced a great deal of success—it recently received the Earthshot Prize ("the most prestigious global environment prize in history") funded by Prince William and Princess Kate. 

Kung has taken his innovations to other countries, such as Kenya, where farmers partner with Takachar through a fertilizer production company. The farmers have found the results of the Takachar's fertilizer to be astonishing: their yields increased by 27 percent with a net yield output increase of up to 50 percent. Kung is also working on projects in California, where he's focused on wildfire and forestry management to reduce excess vegetation buildup. This is a way to prevent wildfires like the ones that occurred throughout 2020. 

Though Kung attended Princeton before there were many academic offerings in entrepreneurship, he does credit the institution for much of his personal growth, particularly in the sciences. In an interview, he said that his coursework as a physics major taught him to "think in a scientific, critical, rigorous way." While many claim that running a business is an art, it's just as much a science; customer discovery, for example, is a form of applied hypothesis testing. This line of thinking, Kung said, started with his time at Princeton. 

While on campus Kung was part of Engineers Without Borders. It was those experiences that first cultivated his interest in emerging international markets, which he further pursued at MIT. He would later interact and connect with Engineers Without Borders at Princeton and MIT through entrepreneurship events. 

"I’m really appreciative of being a part of this growing and vibrant ecosystem," Kung said with a smile.  At the inaugural Tiger Entrepreneurs Conference organized by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council in 2017, Kung was the first to present at the startup showcase. Soon after the conference, Kung and Takachar were accepted into prestigious fellowships at Cyclotron Road and Echoing Green, which both have awarded fellowships to several other Princeton alumni entrepreneurs since 2015. Kung is also the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Safi Organics, an agricultural biomass company based in Kenya.

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