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 January 7, 2021

Francis Pellegrino: a passion for entrepreneurship

Francis plays guitar he built from scratch.
Francis Pellegrino plays the guitar that he built in his home studio with audio equipment salvaged from surplus and scrap yards.

What motivates and inspires outstanding University of Rochester undergraduates like Francis Pellegrino ’22 to be entrepreneurs—to start their own companies even before they graduate?

“It has to do with solving problems and owning a solution,” says Pellegrino, an optical engineering major who is CEO and co-founder of Advanced Growing Resources. The student start-up took first place at the University’s 2020 Swarm Starter Competition. “Having the freedom to use my creativity to make a real impact – that’s what drives me the most,” Pellegrino says.

He has certainly had an impact since arriving at the University in the fall of 2018.

Dean Wendi Heinzelman of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences interviewed Pellegrino for the prestigious Handler Scholarship that enabled him to attend the University tuition free. Heinzelman says she was “completely blown away by Pellegrino’s story and accomplishments. He has continued to be an exemplary student at the University of Rochester. Francis is a fantastic person who will change the world!”

The creativity that fuels Pellegrino’s entrepreneurship was firmly in place well before he arrived here. His father Robert, a semi-retired software engineer and IT consultant, is an inventive tinkerer and maker in his spare time who inspired Pellegrino’s interest in science and also in hands-on projects at an early age. Especially if it meant making something Pellegrino could not afford to go out and buy on his own, such as an electric guitar.

“My biggest inspiration for that is Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen (the British rock band),” says Pellegrino. May, who later earned a PhD in astrophysics and was named to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, built his own electric guitar from scratch with his father at age 16. They used wood from an 18th-century fireplace and household items such as mother-of-pearl buttons, shelf edging, and motorbike valve springs.

“The guitar you hear on virtually every Queen recording, and every live performance, was built by May because he couldn’t afford to buy a nice guitar,” Pellegrino says. “That’s the essence of my philosophy in all that I do, whether it’s coming up with an idea for a company or crafting a guitar I took up and played for fun. That’s what drives my creativity.”

Good schools attracted him to Rochester

Pellegrino was born in Nashua, NH, and grew up there until it was time for him to attend high school. His initial interest in optics was sparked by a project he did on the topic for a 7th grade science fair. It was organized by an “amazing science teacher—Sister Cecile—who brought in local professors to serve as judges,” Pellegrino recalls. He finished first.

Because his family was from Rochester originally – his father, for example, was a graduate of McQuaid Jesuit High School—Pellegrino also knew by middle school that he wanted to “return” to his family’s roots, primarily to attend McQuaid and, hopefully, the University of Rochester.

McQuaid is an all-male preparatory school that stresses the pursuit of excellence in academics, athletics, service to others, and a lifelong commitment to justice. Ninety-one percent of the graduates from the Class of 2020 are attending four-year colleges; another three percent attend two-year colleges.

Pellegrino was valedictorian of his class. He served as a youth advocate and mentor for the Monroe County Teen Court Legal Clinic, founded a non-profit that promoted STEM education through live science shows and peer-to-peer mentoring, and even worked on a congressional campaign.

Accomplishments like those helped Pellegrino receive the Handler Scholarship that enabled him to indeed attend the University. The scholarship is awarded each year to only a handful of students—out of thousands of applicants--who demonstrate outstanding scholarship potential, financial need, and outstanding potential to be future leaders.

Faculty members inspire a change in plans

Pellegrino arrived at the University of Rochester campus intending to major in optics –not because he wanted to be an engineer, but a patent attorney with expertise in optics.

“But when I arrived here I really loved the subject material. And the whole department was just incredible,” Pellegrino says. “I find that what I’m interested in is often driven by the people who teach it. And there’s no place better for that than the Institute of Optics.”

Duncan Moore, the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor in Optical Engineering Science and vice provost for entrepreneurship, and Greg Schmitt, assistant professor of optics, are Pellegrino’s research advisors, and have worked closest with him. “They have served as phenomenal examples for my personal and professional development, from optics to entrepreneurship,” Pellegrino says.

Another Institute faculty member, adjunct professor Greg Savich “been just an incredible resource” in furthering his aspirations in entrepreneurship,” Pellegrino adds. Savich ’06 ’15 PhD is an Institute alumnus who recently served as CTO of Amethyst Research Inc., managing a technology portfolio based on III-V semiconductor technologies for infrared optoelectronics and photonics. “He’s been a fantastic role model for me and other students,” Pellegrino says.

The Institute also provided a critical initial investment in Pellegrino’s start-up company. Pellegrino and fellow Handler scholar and eventual AGR co-founder and CTO Heriniana Rajaoberison ’22, also of optics, took an engineering design class taught by Institute director Scott Carney. Carney was impressed by the interesting ideas the two young scholars brought up in class. He encouraged them to apply for the Institute’s David G. Goldstein Student Innovation Grant, endowed by Julian Goldstein, CEO of Navitar, in honor of his father.

The $800 award “gave us the credibility to get started,” Pellegrino says.

Members of the AGR team.

The Advanced Growing Resources team: From left to right, Heri Rajaoberison, Francis Pellegrino, and Andrew Thankson.

A novel diagnostic for agriculture

“Our product is called the Agcorder and you can think of it like the Tricorder from Star Trek,” says Pellegrino. “It’s a hand-held scanner that can detect different factors of plant health, through the precision spectral analysis of over 250 light frequencies--or colors, before you can see them with the naked eye. This will help agriculture professionals make early decisions about things like pesticides and fertilizers.

“That’s our current target, but it’s really a platform technology that could be used for identifying different chemicals and conditions in a cheap and easy to use handheld package.”

The three-member team, which, in addition to Pellegrino and Rajaoberison, also includes co-founder and fellow Handler Scholar Andrew Thankson ’22 of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, has now raised about $60,000. This includes National Science Foundation I-Corps funding after members attended a three-month accelerator program last summer sponsored by the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

As part of his commitment to community service, Pellegrino has demonstrated the Agcorder at an Institute of Optics Family Night with a team of first-year students he mentored. The annual event features hands on demonstrations and laboratory visits, open to the entire community, that connects Institute faculty and students, along with other members of the optics community, with adults and children who are interested in finding out more about optics.

The device Pellegrino and his team have created, his I-Corps training, and related entrepreneurial and service activities, have helped him already meet most of the requirements of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP). The program recognizes students who design a personalized education program to address one of 14 broad problems facing society in sustainability, health, security, and knowledge, as identified by The National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

The Agcorder fits perfectly with the NAE challenge of “engineering tools for scientific discovery.”

The Agcorder in action
The first generation AgCorder scanning an infected leaf during field testing. The team is currently working on the next generation, to be tested in 2021.

Starting a company is high on his list

Pellegrino’s future plans hinge on how far Advanced Growing Resources advances by the time he graduates.

“Starting a company is high on the list,” he says. “If we can get the resources to start our current venture right out of college, that would be ideal.”

If not, he is definitely interested in finding work a company that can give him hands-on experience in learning more about how to run a company.

Eventually he might complete a master’s degree in systems engineering, and perhaps an MBA, he says.

What does he hope to achieve long term?

“I’m a planner,” Pellegrino says. “I always have a six-month plan, a one-year plan, a five-year plan and a ten-year plan. However, one thing that I’ve learned early on is that those plans change weekly.”

What he eventually achieves, he says, will depend “on a lot of things that are out of my knowledge and sometimes out of my control,” he says.

“But there are certain things that I would like to become or would like to continue being, and being a leader in whatever I do is always the goal. That’s what I naturally tend toward.”

That doesn’t mean getting all the attention--“having my face on things,” he hastens to add. “It means helping other people achieve their goals-- being the most valuable servant of the team. That literally means getting coffee for somebody to keep them going.

“If I can help as many people as possible to do good work, make a solid impact, and be happy in what they’re doing and what they’re working towards, that’s when I’m happy. That’s my goal in whatever I do.”