Innovative Sustainability Startups Win Funding at Innovation Hub Pitch Contest

Two people celebrate with a high-five; one of them is holding a giant check. Image by Ed Brennen
Elcove CEO Anastacia Yefimenko, left, and River Otter Renewables CEO Amelia Thomas celebrate their first-place prizes at the third-annual Clean Green Challenge, held recently at UMass Lowell's Innovation Hub.

By Ed Brennen

A line of zero-waste home cleaning products and technology to turn sewage and toxic “forever chemicals” into renewable fuels earned top prizes at the third annual Clean Green Challenge, held recently at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub.

Designed for sustainability-focused entrepreneurs and startups from across the region, the pitch contest featured six teams competing in two tracks: safer chemicals and recycled materials.

The challenge was sponsored by UML’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), the iHub and Adler Innovation.

Elcove, a line of home cleaning products that features compostable refill packets of non-toxic ingredients that are mixed with water in reusable glass bottles, took the $5,000 first-place prize in the safer chemicals category.

A person hands a certificate to another person in a room. Image by Ed Brennen
Mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Sourabh Kulkarni '17, right, accepts an award from Assoc. Prof. of Management Scott Latham, who emceed the Clean Green Challenge.

Elcove co-founder and CEO Anastacia Yefimenko, a junior entrepreneurship major at Babson College, has participated in several pitch events, but says the Clean Green Challenge was the first that focused on safer chemicals.

“This prize will help us grow and get into retail as we scale our operations,” Yefimenko said.

River Otter Renewables, a patented technology that can convert organic waste and toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals into renewable diesel fuel, aviation fuel and natural gas, won the $5,000 first-place prize in the recycled materials category.

River Otter co-founder and CEO Amelia Thomas says she heard about the challenge from a mentor, MassVentures Managing Director Vinit Nijhawan, who told her, “UMass Lowell is doing something amazing, and you need to apply.”

A person takes something out of a pink box to show to a panel of judges sitting at a table. Image by Ed Brennen
Elcove CEO Anastacia Yefimenko hands out samples of her home cleaning product during her Clean Green Challenge pitch.

“I loved the questions I got from the judges,” Thomas said. “They made me think about where the risks were in the company and gave me a good perspective on what I need to clarify on my next pitch.”

The judges included Greg Montello, chief operating officer at SiShield; Roger Frechette, chief business officer at Concerto Biosciences; Robert Miller, executive director at Emerson IPA Inc.; Paul Ligon, senior vice president at Casella Waste Systems; and Pam Eliason, training manager at TURI.

Assoc. Prof. of Management Scott Latham, who emceed the event, noted that sustainable technology investments grew 15% worldwide last year to $5 trillion.

“Gen Z and Millennials are fueling the growth,” Latham said. “They have a different set of values that is going to be the bedrock for investment in green tech.”

Several of Latham’s business strategy students attended the event, including senior finance student Mia Hamourgas of Lowell.

“Gen Z is really interested in clean emissions and a greener planet, so it’s interesting to see what solutions are on the rise,” said Hamourgas, who enjoyed hearing from a fellow college student like Yefimenko. “It was inspiring to see someone our age up there presenting.”

A person in a suit and tie and glasses holds a microphone and asks a question in an audience. Image by Ed Brennen
A Clean Green Challenge audience member asks a question of one of the competitors.

Magnomer, a patented coatings technology that enables recyclable packaging to be sorted by magnets, earned a second-place prize of $2,000.

Metal Fuels Inc., a sustainable approach to producing alumina (a starter compound used in the smelting of aluminum metal) from scrap aluminum, took $1,000 for third place.

Sourabh Kulkarni ’17, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, was recognized for “best potential” for an early-stage startup for his project to create flame-retardant cotton fabrics from bran, the tough outer layer of whole cereal grains.

Kulkarni works in the HEROES (Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers) lab at UML, where he is advised by Distinguished University Professor of Plastics Engineering Ramaswamy Nagarajan.

The pitch contest was a valuable way to learn about technology commercialization, Kulkarni said: “When creating a pitch, you have to understand how the market works and what investors are looking for. It’s a good learning experience.”  

TURI Director Baskut Tuncak said the institute looks forward to collaborating on future Clean Green Challenges.

“Every contestant presented a fascinating pitch with marketable potential,” Tuncak said. “I am excited to see these entrepreneurs elevate their ideas to the next level, and TURI looks forward to supporting them in any way we can.”

The event also featured a fireside chat with David Zamarin, founder and CEO of DetraPel, a clean-tech advanced materials company specializing in PFAS-free protective coatings that appeared on “Shark Tank” in 2016. The chat was moderated by Keith Wood, counsel at Hamilton Brook Smith & Reynolds Intellectual Property Law, one of the event sponsors.

Other sponsors included Casella, Focal Point, AOTCO Metal Finishing, Kathleen Ralls LLC and Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.