Penn Climate Ventures hosted a student climate startup competition in which a team from Penn placed second.
The Saturday event was part of Penn Climate Venture's mission to help encourage climate careers by extending climate programming to students through opportunities working in energy and entrepreneurship, and to improve campus sustainability. The competition was judged by four sustainable entrepreneurs and venture capitalist-based representatives who listened to the 10 finalists deliver a five-minute pitch followed by five minutes of questions from the judging panel. All of the finalists also received mentorship from Penn graduates involved in climate-related fields.
More than 400 people attended or participated in the competition, which included 87 teams of high school and college students from around the world. The winning team was awarded a $1000 prize, and second- and third-place teams were awarded $500 and $250, respectively.
Penn Climate Ventures co-founder and director Andrew Yu, a Wharton sophomore, said the Penn Climate Ventures Prize is the beginning of a larger mission to increase Penn’s talent pipeline into climate-related fields. He said he hopes the number of students involved in climate-related ventures will become comparable to involvement in consulting, finance, and technology. Penn Climate Ventures organized the event with Spark Teen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the mentorship and funding opportunities for high school students.
“People are excited about climate tech,” Yu said. “[The judges] were all very excited to see the future innovators that would be leading the charge.”
ReneCycle, a Swarthmore College-based team won the first-place prize for their sustainable bike-share program, and Folia, a Penn startup, placed second for a project that matches food waste producers with companies that can utilize the waste.
First-place ReneCycle co-founder Mina Liang, a rising sophomore at Columbia University, said she was grateful for the opportunity to participate and win the award.
“With startups, it can sometimes be hit or miss. It gets pretty discouraging when you’ve been rejected from 10, 20 competitions at a time, so hearing the news, I was so excited,” Liang said.
ReneCycle began in 2018, when Liang and co-founder Hunter Lee, a graduate of Swarthmore College, had hopes of turning abandoned campus bikes into a dockless bike-share program without using new bikes. Compared to other bike-share companies like Citi Bike and Indego, ReneCycle doesn’t require a particular mount to insert the bikes, so any bike can be used by the company as long as it is fitted with a special U lock.
ReneCycle launched a pilot project at Swarthmore College and is in conversation with 14 colleges interested in partnering with the company in the fall. The team aims to save 19.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the associated manufacturing, incineration, and transportation costs associated with more traditional bike-share companies.
ReneCycle plans to use the funds towards investing in its supply chain. Liang said that the mentorship provided through the Penn Climate Ventures prize has been incredibly valuable, in addition to the prize money. ReneCycle received climate-guided advice on its pitch and hours of detailed working attention from 2016 Engineering graduate Nicholas Yiu.
Folia, the second-place team, was inspired to solve an environmental challenge because of the competition. Founded by College first year Rosanna Jiang, Wharton first year Caroline Li, College first year Zachary Huang-Ogata, Engineering first year Stephanie Bi, and Engineering first year Ryoma Harris, the project aims to make the food waste industry circular and divert waste away from landfills by connecting food waste producers with companies that can use the byproducts.
Folia is first targeting spent grain, the leftover malt from beer production which has a variety of uses, such as animal feed and bread. In conversation with local Pennsylvania breweries, Li said that breweries would have to pay extra to compost their spent grain than to send it to a landfill, so creating a partnership with local companies would be an ideal fit.
“It’s kind of crazy that we won second place, but it means that we hit on a problem that was actually really important and needs a solution,” Li said.
Folia plans on using the funding to jumpstart its relationship with transportation partners, purchase grain bins, which are used to store and transport grain, and develop its website.
Before the announcement of the winners, Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside delivered remarks about the importance of climate entrepreneurship, emphasizing the importance of increasing the supply of sustainable products at the same time as demand, with a particular focus on Impossible meat.
“One force that is in our favor is the growing awareness of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment [and] growing awareness of the need to do something,” he said.
Although Woodside said Impossible Foods has made a significant mark in the current perception of the meat market, their market penetration is only 1.5% in the United States. Impossible Foods hopes to target countries with the largest meat consumption, and with a primary focus on cows, which are among the most polluting animals. He also hinted at future pork and chicken Impossible product alternatives, in addition to the "Impossible burger."
Woodside encouraged students to consider tracks that they believe will have an impact on the climate.
“I think if you look around, there [are] so many areas that are going to have to change, [and so many areas] where there’s an incumbent industry that’s going to have to get disrupted by something cleaner, and something that’s more sustainable,” Woodside said.