Of the 20 finalists named for this year’s Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award, three — all women — are from Yale.
The startups and social ventures they lead address major environmental problems head-on. The women have developed a sustainable solution for methane emissions from cows; a crowdsourcing platform for supporting community-based initiatives; and an energy company that’s providing solar power to low-income communities. The prize, launched last year, is supported by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and the winner receives $100,000.
Seaweed-based food for cows
One of finalists, Ms. Alexia Akbay (MPH ’19), says her studies around climate change made her want to search for real solutions. “There’s a gap between research and implementation,” she says, adding that the Yale School of Public Health helps to move solutions forward via multi-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving. Symbrosia, the startup she founded with Ms. Gracie White, aims to grow seaweed as a cattle feed supplement. Studies show methane emissions are reduced by 99 percent when 1 percent of feed is replaced with the specific seaweed they’re growing. Agriculture is a leading source of methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas — with about one-third of those emissions coming from livestock. Symbrosia utilizes white Pacific shrimp to supply nutrients for the seaweed to grow, and in so doing also produces a separate product – sustainable shrimp. They are currently prototyping their system at Yale’s West Campus. The startup recently won the $25,000 Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and participated in the Summer Fellowship at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, which had a Demo Day on Thursday, July 26.
“They were really thoughtful about their approach,” says Dr. David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology and director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, who nominated Ms. Akbay. “The problem motivated her to learn this aquatic system to produce food while also making a difference.”
Community Change through crowdsourcing
Finalist Ms. Erin Barnes, has been growing her social venture, ioby, over the past 10 years — putting control over community initiatives into the hands of local residents through its supportive crowdsourcing platform. “Residents are often overlooked as a source for innovation,” says Ms. Barnes, “whether it is flooding issues, access to healthy foods, or alternative transportation.” Instead, she notes, community solutions come from the top or from outside groups. “Ioby makes them leaders,” she says.
Ms. Barnes launched the platform with Yale classmates and cofounders Mr. Brandon Whitney and Ms. Cassie Flynn, and the nonprofit provides guidance, training and additional funding to community initiatives across the country, including “Don’t Flush Me” — a NYC-based project that texts residents when there is stormwater overflow — community cleanups and rail-to-trail projects. “When we graduated, we felt like there was an important piece missing from the conversation around making concrete change,” Ms. Barnes says. “It’s different than policy and advocacy – we’re interested in creating change where you see an immediate result.”
Democratizing access to clean energy
The third Yale finalist, Ms. Stephanie Speirs, has made affordable solar access her mission. Her startup, Solstice, allows renters and low-income consumers to access community-shared solar farms. They developed the EnergyScore — an alternative to the industry’s FICO credit scores — to provide eligibility to more people, and are actively enrolling and educating for community solar pilot projects across Massachusetts, Washington DC, New York, and New Jersey.
“In New York alone, our policy team has helped to shape a $21 million incentive to support low-income community solar, as well as a New York Green Bank guarantee fund that will help bring inclusive solar projects to market,” Speirs says. If the startup’s team wins the genius prize, she adds, they’d be able to expand their solar projects into five more states, paving the way for nationwide growth. “Only by democratizing access to clean energy will we be able to bring clean energy to scale,” she adds.
The Yale ethos
For all three finalists, the money would be transformative in taking their environmental solutions to the next level. And it’s telling, says Dr. Skelly, that these three breakthrough environmental ideas have come from Yale’s graduate schools. “It’s the ethos of FES [Forestry & Environmental Studies] and other professional schools — bringing intellectual rigor and great research together with the need to make a difference. It’s not enough to just understand something; they need to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”