Engineering Grad Focuses on Science's Power for Good

By the time Jonathan (Jonny) Cohen started his freshman year at Columbia Engineering, he had launched a startup and been named—twice—to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list of energy sector leaders for his work in green technology.

Cohen, who graduates in May with a degree in mechanical engineering, has been devising inventions since grade school. One of his first, at age 9, was an intercom system built from scrap parts that he found around his house.

May 08, 2017

“Nothing in my house was safe,” said Cohen, who grew up in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb. “I had remote control planes and loved taking apart their engines and modifying their shapes. I constantly tinkered with electronics.”

At age 12, Cohen invented an aerodynamic device that redirected the airflow around school buses, reducing both drag and carbon emissions. Shaped like a shark fin and made of plexiglass, the GreenShield was affixed to the front of a bus's roof and increased gas mileage by up to 2.6 percent at 55 miles per hour.

In 2008 GreenShields became a full-fledged startup and two years later it received a $25,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project. Cohen's invention garnered attention from Scientific American, Forbes and Good Morning America, and it gave him a platform from which to share his ideas about young innovators and outside-the-box thinking. In 2014 he delivered a TEDxRedmond talk, “Kindergartners Should Work at NASA,” and he still speaks at youth conferences and universities.

Cohen shuttered GreenShields last spring, as oil and diesel fuel prices dropped, but the project has fueled his interest in thinking creatively about the future of transportation.

At the Engineering School, he zeroed in on aerodynamics, a topic he finds fascinating “because it affects everything that moves,” Cohen said. Last summer, he interned at Peloton Technology, an automated vehicle company that is improving the safety and efficiency of freight transportation. Cohen worked under co-founder Dave Lyons, who was employee No. 12 at Tesla and its former director of engineering. “He really inspired me,” Cohen added. “He taught me how to prototype things physically really quickly.”

Cohen constantly jots ideas in his Field Notes notebook, most have to do with helping others and protecting the environment. “What is science good for if it can’t be used to help people?”

Reflecting on his time at Columbia, Cohen said there is plenty to gain outside the classroom by being active in the University’s diverse communities. His advice to future freshmen: “Focus on learning from your friends, connecting with your professors. Figure out what’s going on across campus. There are so many cool communities out there. ... And, don’t be afraid to reach out to those professors whose research you find really interesting. I don’t think any one of us has done enough of that.”

While juggling courses, Cohen spent nearly two years working remotely as a project engineer for Chicago-based Medline Design Industries. He developed—and filed a patent for—a metal case tablet and smartphone case that prevents the growth of microbes that could transfer to surfaces. It could be used by doctors and medical workers in the field.

Since October, Cohen has worked part time in New York City with Thyra Global Management, and he will join the venture capital firm full time as a principal investor after graduation. He will look for startups that share his passion for innovative transportation.

“People often accept a lot of things around us as the best they can be, but I feel very often that’s not the case,” Cohen said. “It’s up to the next person to make it better—and that’s what I enjoy doing.”