Founder Profile: Julia Yan (ENG22 GEN22)
MEET JULIA YAN, ENGINEERING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO REDUCE POLLUTION
“The excitement and zeal we have for what the future could look like with a product like ours in consumer hands has made all the hurdles and challenges more than worth it.”
Earlier this summer, we were thrilled to announce that a trio of female May graduates, all materials science and engineering majors in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, won the Class of 2022 President’s Sustainability Prize (PSP) — Julia Yan of Cary, North Carolina, Sarah Beth Gleeson of Lexington, Kentucky and Shoshana Weintraub of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
They will be spending the next year creating a commercial device for trapping microfibers in laundry machines that are released when synthetic clothing is washed, to reduce ocean microplastic pollution. The PSP award includes funding as well as dedicated space at the Pennovation Center and continued mentorship through the Penn Center for Innovation. The goal is to take their senior project from concept to a tangible product that can help individuals make a major impact on reducing microfiber pollution.
The three women had formed a senior design team at the start of the academic year and had become interested in microfibers — the small strands of plastic thread that are shed from synthetic clothing during wash cycles. Nearly 14 million tons of plastic pollute the world’s oceans each year and the small particles that are formed when larger pieces of plastic break down have a catastrophic impact on marine ecosystems and human health.
Julia, Sarah Beth and Shoshoana began to focus on creating a device that anyone could use to collect microfibers at the main source — washing machines. They began to collaborate with the Penn Libraries’ Biotech Commons to generate 3d-print prototypes throughout the semester. The device they designed is a micro-fiber catching laundry ball that can be tossed into any washing machine — around the size of a tennis ball. It holds replaceable filters designed to replicate the high filtration efficiency of natural sea sponges.
In an article in Penn Today, their PSP mentor Professor Karen Winey says that Baleena’s focus on tackling microfiber pollution at the point source, as well as their ability to work as a team, has been instrumental to the project’s success thus far. “Modern life relies on plastics, so we have to figure out how to manage them and mitigate them with regard to the environment,” says Winey. “And as a team, they all have a very strong commitment to the problem, to environmental issues, and sustainability.”
Julia is the CEO of Baleena — she’s leading the startup operations and business-development areas. Part of her role will be leveraging existing partnerships with Patagonia, Ocean Wise Labs and other local eco-focused businesses to help build the brand and reach partners in the consumer laundry space.
Tell us a bit about your company
Baleena’s mission is to provide a first-in-class, highly-efficient, low-cost microfiber trapping device used in consumers’ homes to reduce microplastic emissions at the point source — laundry. Combined technology, education, and advocacy is required to deliver the scale of change needed; our partners include Philadelphia eco-focused businesses, Patagonia, and Ocean Wise Labs.
What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?
Conversations with the Philadelphia Water Department, EPA, and Penn Water Center jump started our own thinking and investigation into the gaping holes in the current methods of addressing microplastics in our waterways and oceans. In fact, shockingly, millions of tons of plastics are dumped into our oceans and hundreds of thousands of microplastics per year are ultimately ingested by humans, yet little is being done. Microfibers, strands of plastic thread less than 5mm in length shed from our clothing during the laundering cycle, are one of the biggest microplastic polluters.
Baleena aims to address this catastrophic yet neglected problem at the intersection of the “green” eco-marketed CPG market with the laundry care market, giving individual laundry-doers the opportunity to make an environmental difference with their daily actions.”
What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?
My co-founders, Sarah Beth Gleeson and Shoshana Weintraub, all majored in and met through the Materials Science & Engineering Department at Penn. Both the curriculum and our collective experiences together in the last 4 years have uniquely poised us with an ingrained curiosity to explore new innovative solutions in materials and STEM to tackle our world’s emerging problems. We also share a deep interest in sustainability and biomimetic materials that fueled our Senior Design project that ultimately evolved into this venture.
What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?
Participating in the selection process and ultimately receiving one of the inaugural President’s Sustainability Prize Awards in 2022 as the only all-female identifying and all-engineer team was one of our most encouraging experiences so far in our journey. Meeting all the creative student entrepreneurs entering alongside us in the competition was an incredibly inspiring experience as the startup space at Penn is so vibrant, energetic, and encouraging. It was also immensely fulfilling to have Penn’s support behind Baleena as they’ve been so great in providing us with all of the resources, connections, and support systems to help get off the ground.
What is an obstacle that you are grappling with as you continue to build this venture?
Integral to our specific venture is education and advocacy, as even though this problem we’re trying to tackle plagues the entire world, so few people know that it exists and understand the extent of the implications on our public and personal health. How we can best create awareness about the issue of microfibers and generate discourse within the community to make the biggest social impact that we can is something we continue to grapple with as we develop this venture. Addressing this obstacle is the main focus as we look towards forming partnerships with companies well-established in the cleantech and ocean health industries.
What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own business?
Being able to take an idea we conceived in an offhand brainstorming session, shape it from this amorphous blurry vision into a more tangible reality using just our own self-driven ambition and scrappy mindsets, and finally putting a product out there in the world that can hopefully make a big difference. The excitement and zeal we have for what the future could look like with a product like ours in consumer hands has made all the hurdles and challenges more than worth it.
Read more about Baleena here and connect with Julia here. At Penn Today, learn more about the President’s Sustainability Prize and the many mentors, professors and Penn departments who are supporting this work.