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Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant: The 2018 Winners

This year’s winners of the Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grants have something in common – a desire to reduce waste and improve the environmental footprint of the apparel industry.  These $10,000 venture grants are disbursed annually by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment to provide funding and mentorship to new eco-ventures.

Hand Me Up, co-founded by Jatin Batra (SOM ‘19), Cyndi Chen (SOM ‘19) and Melissa Mazzeo (SOM/F&ES ’20), is scaling informal exchange networks, like parent groups, to build a children’s secondhand marketplace. With only 15% of all clothing donated or reused, Hand Me Up (HMU) hopes to change perceptions and encourage clothing reuse by creating a positive shopping experience for busy parents. In turn, this will reduce the environmental impact of the notoriously dirty fashion industry.

Hand Me Up's cofounders from left to right: Jatin Batra (SOM ‘19), Melissa Mazzeo (SOM/F&ES ’20), and Cyndi Chen (SOM ‘19)

The manufacturing of clothes produces 20% of industrial water pollution.  Additionally, the trend of “fast fashion” continues to grow: globally, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year, a 400% increase from 20 years ago.

Initially focused on a seasonal subscription service box of personally-styled secondhand children’s outfits, HMU also plans to include both an online store where individual pieces of clothing can be purchased and community-based pop-up shops.  

“The goal of Hand Me Up is to improve the experience of shopping for secondhand children’s clothing,” says Mazzeo.  “By helping to change people’s perception of resale and reducing demand for environmentally harmful “fast fashion”, we hope to reduce textile waste, challenge the consumerist culture, and ultimately minimize the resources used to produce new clothing.”

"This grant will allow us to increase production, fulfill orders and continue to grow."

- Monika Dharia, cofounder of GreenGear

GreenGear Supply Company, co-founded by Russell Heller (YC ‘19), Monika Dharia (Duke) and Alan Yu (Brown), aims to fight plastic pollution and reduce carbon emissions by making rain ponchos from a sugar-based bioplastic.  Recent reports estimate that the use of plastic is responsible for approximately 8% of the world’s oil consumption and is expected to rise to 20% by 2050. This contributes 18 billion pounds of waste to our oceans annually.  GreenGear’s ponchos are made from a material that, when the source material is grown, actually sequesters carbon dioxide.  Additionally, sales of these ecofriendly ponchos and will displace the purchase of existing petroleum-based options.

GreenGear's cofounders from left to right: Russell Heller (YC ‘19), Alan Yu (Brown) and Monika Dharia (Duke)

“For the past year, we have been struggling to scale due to a lack of funds and we have not been able to fulfill all current orders. This grant will allow us to increase production, fulfill these orders, and continue to grow,” says Dharia.  “We are also very excited about the resources that the Sobotka grant network will provide us as we think about how to best expand our business.”

The Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant, sponsored by David Sobotka (YC ’78), has supported nearly 25 startups over the past eight years. The Yale Center for Business and the Environment has administered the grant over this tenure and has seen interest in this initiative grow, especially recently.  “The number of applications doubled this year, coming from all across Yale’s campus,” says Stuart DeCew, Executive Director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.  “The themes we saw in the overall set of applications may signal a shift in the mindset of emerging entrepreneurs, who are challenging and reimagining the business models and approaches to product design that underpin current consumption patterns. The future they are building is one our kids and grandkids will be proud of.”

According to Sophie Janaskie, Environmental Innovation Fellow at CBEY and Tsai CITY, “The judges were very impressed by the quality of the business ideas that were presented. We hope to see this growth and interest in environmental entrepreneurship continue, and we look forward to continuing to work with these teams during their time at Yale.”

Hand Me Up and GreenGear are eligible to enter Yale’s Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize for a chance to win a further $25,000 this spring.