Private: Award-Winning Sanitation Startup revoLOOtion Solves a Basic Need

A child girl plays in piles of trash while her mother burns it on the beach of Kollam, Kerala

Chances are most Wharton students take basic sanitation for granted. Not Nidhi Shah, G’17, WG’17, who confronted enough problems with sewage in her native India to become a waste warrior. The result? RevoLOOtion, a startup on a mission to change the way the world does sanitation, making it more sustainable, environmental, and delightful — one john at a time.

As Shah is quick to point out, you can’t have a discussion about poverty in India without mentioning toilets and hygiene. Roughly half the country’s 1.3 billion citizens lack basic sewage and sanitation infrastructure, and the toll that takes on public health and economic productivity is profound. Shah, a chemical engineer by training, was volunteering with the startup Toilets for People in Latin America when she began to think about creating her own startup. “I knew I wanted to focus on India,” she explains. “The need there for affordable, ecological sanitation was pretty massive.”

Along with co-founder Swathi Meenekshi, CEO Shah came up with RevoLOOtion, which provides affordable, no-flush composting toilets for India’s urban lower-middle class, whose members are clustered in high-density informal settlements that often rely on unhygienic and poorly lit shared latrines. RevolOOtion toilets essentially serve as septic tanks; the collected waste can even be transformed into biogas fuel.

Among Shah’s favorite Wharton courses were Entrepreneurial Marketing and Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Product Design. “I learned that when the market has a need, you serve that need instead of trying to create a need for your product,” Shah says—in other words, pull rather than push. RevoLOOtion’s original design was innovative, but when Shah talked to users, she realized it was too complicated: “We changed our design based on understanding how this would actually be used. So there was a little bit of push, which we transitioned into pull.”

Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship cultivates an entrepreneurial ecosystem to give students and alumni like Shah the knowledge, experience, and networks to scale big ideas into sustainable impact. The Venture Initiation Program (VIP), Penn’s own incubator, fostered revoLOOtion’s initial growth; VIP provides mentoring and resources like co-working space and workshops. Through Wharton and Lauder classes, faculty mentorship, and on-campus incubators, Shah transformed her idea into a viable social enterprise.

RevoLOOtion won $10,000 through the Lauder Institute’s Jacobson Global Venture Award, which supports promising entrepreneurial ventures, and also snagged the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 Wharton Women in Business Conference Startup Showcase. The company continues to make progress as Shah and Meenekshi collaborate with contacts on the ground in India to lift standards of living for all.

“We think that this business could prove profitable,” says Shah. “A third of the world not having a toilet is an economic opportunity. But my larger goal is thinking about what would make a meaningful impact. I’ve benefited from all of these systems, not just in India but in the U.S., and that means I should do something for those who haven’t had a chance to benefit.”