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Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant: The 2015 Winners

Sustainably discharging brine into the ocean. Reviving Eastern Kentucky’s economy with hemp

Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant: The 2015 Winners

Two promising new companies received $10,000 each from this year’s Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant, which is disbursed annually by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment to provide funding and professional mentorship to young eco-ventures. The first of these companies promotes sustainable growth of the seawater desalination industry. The second looks to accelerate ecological and economic restoration of Eastern Kentucky as the coal industry loses its regional hold.

“Thirty years ago desalination-produced water wasn’t needed in vast quantities,” said Michael Warady (F&ES/SOM ‘17), CEO of Maike Water. (The name maike is derived from Chinese, and means, “to be able to make strides”.) But the increasing severity and frequency of droughts is leading to the development of desalination plants worldwide. Over the past five years the desalination market has grown 57 percent; by 2025, it is expected to provide freshwater for up to 14 percent of the world’s population.  

While offering a nearly limitless supply of freshwater, desalination also poses a series of environmental challenges, including the ecologically destructive discharge of a concentrated saline brine solution. “The literature on environmental impacts of brine discharge is just beginning to be understood,” said Warady, “and the delay in information dissemination has led to this issue being overlooked.” Warady and Rupal J. Patel (F&ES ‘16), CTO of Maike Water, plan to address this gap with end-of-pipe sensors and big data software designed to read and predict natural fluctuations in ocean salinity, allowing plant operators to optimize the timing of brine discharges. The majority of the Sobotka Prize will be used to create a prototype and within 18 months Maike Water plans to have completed its first pilot project in Northern California.

Addressing a far more localized challenge, Nathan Hall (F&ES/SOM ‘17) received a Sobotka grant for his Kentucky-based company, Appalachian Roots – Hemp 2.0. “People in Appalachia are hungry for new opportunities in the wake of the near disappearance of the coal industry,” said Hall. With the recent (re)-legalization of hemp in Kentucky, Appalachian Roots hopes to develop carbon-negative hemp growing techniques on mining-impacted lands, which currently host little more than invasive grasses. The company will then develop a local processing network to transform the raw crop into more valuable forms, from textiles, to its newer application in advanced biopolymer composites.

“We’re very excited about the potential to build up a value-added industry in a region that has long been dependent on extraction of natural resources, and to bring opportunities to small farmers and unemployed miners,” said Hall. The company has already forged strong relationships with the Kentucky Hemp Industries Association and with Fibershed, a partner of outdoor apparel giant Patagonia. By May of 2016, Appalachian Roots plans to have seeds in the ground on an experimental plot of land.

Both companies will be automatically entered in Yale’s Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize for a chance to win a further $25,000 this spring.

About the Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant Program: The Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant Program provides seed funds for eco-ventures to support vital areas for commercial success including product R&D, incorporation, market surveying, and product or service prototyping. In addition to funding, Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant Recipients receive mentorship and guidance.