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Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant: The 2016 Winners

Tasty, healthy food from the freezer aisle. Helping companies help their employees embrace a bike commute.

Two promising start-ups each received $10,000 from this year’s Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant, disbursed annually by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment to provide funding and mentorship to new eco-ventures. The first recipient is developing nutritious, plant-based frozen meals that can be prepared in 15 minutes by stovetop. The second recipient leases conventional and electric bikes to companies in an effort to boost the number of urban bike commuters.

]Kitchen Table, cofounded by Zoë Lloyd (F&ES/SOM ‘17) and Nilofer Ahmed (SOM ’16), is creating a line of frozen, vegan-friendly meals that contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives and low amounts of sodium. The U.S. market for frozen food, which comprises $13 billion dollars, is expected to grow by about 1.6 percent each year. “We saw an opportunity here to help students and working professionals both eat healthy meals and reduce food waste while building on their desire to cook,” said Lloyd. “Our plant-based meals are the perfect solution for that mid-week crunch, so people no longer have to sacrifice health for convenience when they’re busiest.” Based on current progress, Kitchen Table is expected to produce its first run of 500 meals by early January.

From an environmental perspective, the benefits of plant-based meals are tremendous: according to the United Nations, meat production is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that methane emissions from livestock production alone account for 50 percent of agricultural greenhouse gases; replacing beef protein with pulses—the edible seeds of various legumes—would reduce carbon emissions by 630 percent.

To tackle a distinctly different environmental challenge—air pollution from the transportation sector—David Hutchinson (SOM ‘17) and his partner Celeste Jalbert founded Bike City, which leases conventional and electric bikes to companies. Surveys of the 50 largest U.S. cities show that half of adults are interested in bike commuting, but less than 1 percent of people ride to work. Concerns ranging from safety to arriving at work sweaty prevent people who express interest in biking from following through. Bike City hopes to address these barriers by providing “an ecosystem of support,” said Hutchinson. This includes not just the availability of bikes at work, but also individual coaching on how to ride safely and plan routes, free roadside assistance, and regular bike maintenance. “We want to get people who aren't currently commuting by bike out on the roads in a safe, supported and enjoyable way,” said Hutchinson.

Bike City’s pilot ran this summer in New Haven and, to Hutchinson’s and Jalbert’s mild surprise, it was oversubscribed. Knowing that demand exists, the two of them are now attacking the challenge of keeping people commuting through all seasons. They are also investigating how best to use network effects—friends talking to friends and colleagues—as a tool for increasing interest in bike commuting. “As cities invest in their bike infrastructure and set higher sustainability targets for companies, we want to foster the momentum around bikes as day-to-day transportation,” said Hutchinson.

In addition to receiving the Sobotka Seed Stage Venture grants, both Kitchen Table and Bike City were selected to be supported by the Social Entrepreneurship Consultancy, which allows current graduate students to serve as social impact consultants to start-ups run by their peers. Kitchen Table and Bike City will also enter 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.