Yale Daily News

Seven new entrepreneurial ventures took home a total of $125,000 after last week’s “Startup Yale” competition, Yale’s largest annual competition for startups to pitch their ideas.

The competition — a collaboration between Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, or CITY, the School of Management, Dwight Hall and many other organizations — took place between April 30 and May 1 over Zoom, with each team presenting their company to a panel of judges for 10 minutes. A total of 25 finalists pitched during these two days, competing in seven different prize categories. Six of the seven prizes are restricted to groups with at least one degree-seeking Yale student while the seventh, which was divided between two teams this year, is open to all members of the New Haven community. 

The competition saw a wide range of teams this year. Over 70 groups applied, the highest number to date. In accordance with the competition’s self-stated goal of reimagining the future, winning ideas ranged from startups that furthered mind-body movements through Indian classical dance to those that created sustainable packaging made from corn. 

“I genuinely love, support and care about the mission,” said Shervin Dehmoubed ’25, the founder and CEO of EcoPackables, one of the winning groups. “I think it really goes a long way, showing that this is something you’re committed to, and that this is something you’re going to work hard for because you believe in the cause.”

EcoPackables is a packaging company focused on replacing plastic or paper packaging with compostable or 100 percent recycled materials. The company, which was formed only 10 months ago, earned both the Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize and the Yale Innovators’ Prize, amounting to $40,000 in total winnings. The Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize focuses on student ventures that advance environmental stability while the Yale Innovators’ Prize looks for projects that may “produce the greatest impact,” according to the Tsai CITY website.

EcoPackables’ focus on sustainability in the packaging industry is a much-needed initiative, as the industry is one of the largest contributors to global waste and pollution. Their success in winning these prestigious prizes highlights the importance of sustainability in business, especially for younger generations. Companies looking to follow in EcoPackables’ footsteps can seek out eco-friendly packaging solutions such as those offered by eliter-packaging.com, which provides businesses with packaging machinery and materials that are environmentally friendly and efficient. By making conscious decisions and investing in sustainable practices, businesses can reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a healthier planet.

Pitching over Zoom posed new challenges to the competitors. Some groups, like Qi Foods — an East Asian superfoods company — had physical products that might have benefited from an in-person presentation, where judges would be able to taste the company’s food. 

Dehmoubed found himself wishing the contest was not virtual, saying that it is a more rewarding experience to interact with an audience in person. For him, it required a lot more effort to maintain an enthusiastic and active presentation online.

“I practiced a lot,” Dehmoube said. “That whole week I spent probably six to 10 hours a day practicing my pitch. Startup Yale also offered a bunch of coaching sessions and people to look over my pitch, which I am thankful for.” 

In addition to mentoring, Startup Yale also made their judging criteria publicly available and made all seven prize applications due on the same days this year in hopes of increasing accessibility. 

While preparation for the pitch event is often an intense process, the competition is also about the caliber of the project. Tsai CITY estimated that the application alone would take 10 hours to complete. 

“There’s a lot of application before you even get to present,” Lina Kacyem SOM ’21 said. Kacyem is a member of the ReCore Medical team, another prize winner, which created an affordable, accessible and reusable cancer testing device. “Charisma obviously matters, but it doesn’t take away from the quality of the product. It’s just a little icing on the cake. If the icing is good and the cake is disgusting, the whole thing is still disgusting.”

The ReCore Medical team, which also consists of Marley Windham-Herman SOM ’21 MED ’21, David Dupee SOM ’21 MED ’21 and doctoral candidate Walter Bircher GRD ’21, won the Rothberg Catalyzer Prize. According to the Tsai CITY website, the Rothberg Catalyzer Prize focuses on a venture dedicated to developing a hardware or artificial intelligence solution to a medical problem.

“It’s exciting every time to get that validation that someone thinks your idea is cool,” said Dupee. “But by the same stroke, it’s disappointing every time when you don’t win. It’s a push and pull of leaning into the victories and being resilient about the defeats.”

CtrlTrial — a healthcare analytics company providing software for group identification in patient management and clinical research — was a finalist for the Miller Prize. While they ultimately did not win this year’s prize, founder and doctoral candidate Guannan Gong GRD ’24 emphasized that it was still a valuable opportunity to be able to pitch and receive feedback, and most importantly to “prepare for challenges in the future.” The Miller Prize focuses on tech or tech-enabled solutions.

The competition allows eligible groups to enter in up to three prizes, unless they have won those prizes in the past. Two startups, Floe and CtrlTrial, who won prizes last year, once again became finalists for different prizes, with Floe winning the Miller Prize this year. The application was also streamlined this year, allowing groups to apply to multiple prizes with one application.

The applicants to this year’s competition hailed from Yale College, the School of Management, Yale Law School, the School of Public Health, the School of the Environment, the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

You can find a more detailed list of the winners on the Tsai CITY website.

Dante Motley is public editor for the News. He was previously managing editor, and prior to that he covered Black communities at Yale and in New Haven. He has also served as an Associate Editor for the YDN Magazine and worked on "The Yalie" podcast. Dante is a senior in Grace Hopper College majoring in anthropology.