From Student to Spirits Innovator- The Entrepreneurial Journey of Purdue
In the realm of innovation and entrepreneurship, the tales of those who turn their passions into thriving businesses are always captivating. One such individual is Ethan Hirsh, a recent Purdue graduate with a major in Mechanical Engineering Technology and a Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. While still a student, Ethan founded BarrelSense, a startup aiming to revolutionize the traditional barrel-aged spirits industry by deploying sensors to capture data, thereby enhancing the consistency of products like bourbon.
Ethan’s decision to venture into entrepreneurship was heavily influenced by his family’s entrepreneurial background. Hailing from Boca Raton, Florida, he was always encouraged to think outside the box and carve his unique path. His inclination for innovation emerged during his high school years when he became involved in robotics. On his first day, he was told that first-year students couldn’t directly engage with the robot. His response was a resolute, “What do you mean I can’t touch the robot?” Ethan’s determination led him to become the safety captain, allowing him to eventually work closely with the robot, where his role was to minimize downtime and optimize productivity.
At Purdue, Ethan’s journey into entrepreneurship began when he enrolled in the Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. Initially concerned about adding extra semesters to his academic schedule, he soon realized that the ENTR certificate perfectly aligned with his goals. It provided him with fundamental business skills, including market research, finance, accounting, team building, and the process of turning an idea into a reality.
While at Purdue, Ethan stumbled upon an internship opportunity that reshaped his career trajectory. During his freshman year at the Industrial Roundtable, a student-led career fair where he initially had little idea of what to expect. Armed with 30 copies of his resume, he was instructed to distribute them to as many potential employers as possible. At the fair, a giant inflatable dragon representing Sazerac captivated him. A company with a portfolio of 400 different spirits brands, including renowned names like Fireball, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Eagle Rare Bourbon, and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, were familiar to Ethan. When he approached the booth, the recruiters informed him that he was too young to join the company but encouraged him to return the following year. However, COVID-19 had other plans. When his initial internship was canceled due to the pandemic, Ethan reached out to the Sazerac recruiter, expressing his strong interest in an internship. To his delight, he was hired and had the chance to merge his interests with his engineering skills at Sazerac’s facility in New Albany, Indiana.
The following summer, Ethan returned to Sazerac and worked at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, which was a dream come true. Every day, the aroma of bourbon filled the air, and the plant buzzed with activity. Ethan fully immersed himself in the culture by joining the Frankfort Bourbon Society, becoming their youngest member to date. At the company, his technical role focused on bourbon processing, allowing him to learn about optimizing filtration processes and minimizing losses. He also had the opportunity to gain insights into all aspects of the distillery, including barrel warehousing, learning from the industry’s best and discovering important problems and opportunities.
During Ethan’s senior year at Purdue, he embarked on a transformative educational and experiential journey when he enrolled in ENTR 31000: Marketing for New Ventures, taught by Bob Paden. In this course, he was tasked with identifying a problem or opportunity in his life, which led to the inception of BarrelSense. Fueled by his newfound passion for the bourbon industry and his desire to deepen his understanding of bourbon production and the customer experience, what started as a classroom project quickly evolved into a real-world venture focused on developing software, IoT technology and data analytics to empower distillers in managing the maturation process of their spirits.
Recognizing the value of the education and mentorship he received in entrepreneurship courses, Ethan then registered for ENTR 48200: Venture Planning Studio, taught by John McDonald and Tony Vernon. This highly experiential course provided Ethan with invaluable insights from his instructors, who played pivotal roles in shaping his vision for BarrelSense. Ethan also received assistance from classmates who were eager to contribute to the necessary due diligence required to launch the venture.
A dedicated team was necessary to formally launch the business BarrelSense. Co-founder, Andrew Dubin, a Purdue junior majoring in cybersecurity, played a crucial role in BarrelSense’s launch. Mentors-in-residence, Glen and Michael, provided valuable advice, emphasizing the importance of “dating before marrying” when bringing team members on board. This approach helped Ethan make informed decisions about equity and team composition.
Ethan’s advice to current Purdue students is simple yet profound: “Take full advantage of the Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Purdue’s entrepreneurship resources, build connections as your network is your net worth, and keep an open mind about non-traditional career paths.” He encourages students to embrace opportunities, cultivate genuine relationships, and leverage the connections available at the University, because you never know where they might lead. Ethan reminds us that there is no instruction manual for entrepreneurship, but the Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program provides budding entrepreneurs with a solid foundation by offering knowledge, insights, and guidance from experienced entrepreneurs who are passionate about teaching.
The mission of BarrelSense is to transform the barrel-aged spirits industry through the development and deployment of novel barrel-centric solutions that utilize IoT sensors to capture environmental, sensory, and other data related to the product aging cycle from inception to bottling. BarrelSense offers distillers data and insights to improve the consistency of their existing products, develop new products, and reduce loss and waste during the aging process The improved efficiency has the potential to accelerate the development of an already fast-growing industry, while also creating meaningful benefits to producers and consumers.