Prem Jain: India's Air Conditioning Expert

Prem Jain (ME, M.S. ’60, Ph.D. ’67) almost didn’t graduate from the University of Minnesota. In fact, he almost didn’t enroll. In 1958, after deciding to pursue an advanced degree in engineering, the native of Delhi, India, traveled to Chicago to begin classes at a small technical institution. But after learning of Jain’s particular ambitions, one of his professors pulled him aside and urged him to relocate.

“He thought that if I was coming all the way from India to study air conditioning, I should go to the best institution,” Jain recalls. “And in his mind, that was Minnesota. I’m truly grateful to him for guiding me to the U of M.”

Today, Jain is not only a graduate and an ardent fan of the University of Minnesota—“a wonderful place” he says—he is also one of the leading experts on air conditioning in India. In 1980, he founded the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE). His firm, Spectral, established the same year, has worked on hundreds of projects across India over the decades, and Jain himself has personally consulted on projects to rework air conditioning at India’s presidential palace and the Office of the Prime Minister.

“Aim for the stars. Be true to your profession. Don’t make small targets. Set large goals that seem almost unattainable— and then achieve them.”

–Prem Jain

Jain credits two people with putting him on this path to expertise and renown. First, his mother. “She wanted me to get the best education there was— and when she found out it was better in the U.S., she insisted I go to school there,” he said. Secondly, his mentor, Dr. James Threlkeld, a University professor of mechanical engineering. “He was a legendary figure in the world of air conditioning,” Jain said.

Threlkeld had a passion for engineering—and air conditioning—that was infectious. Jain remembers one class in which the professor insisted that his students crawl through ductwork so they could understand how air moved.

Nowadays, when Jain instructs students at the school of architecture at Delhi University, he tries to get his students to think the same way. While he doesn’t insist that anyone wriggle through ductwork, he does require his students to visit actual building sites that Spectral is working on to examine how projects are put together.

“I tell them, ‘Think of yourself traveling in a bubble. How do you move through the system?’” he said. “They learn exactly what to do in real life. It’s an experience you can’t get from reading a book.”

Two years ago, Jain merged Spectral with AECOM, a global provider of technology and management support solutions, and today he serves as chairman of AECOM India. He believes the entrepreneurial spirit that led him to America and ultimately back to Delhi to start his own company still exists and offers his advice to fledgling entrepreneurs.

“Aim for the stars,” he said. “Be true to your profession. Don’t make small targets. Set large goals that seem almost unattainable—and then achieve them.”