YSE Student’s Line of Alternative Leather Consumer Goods Wins Startup Yale Sustainability Prize
Aatma Leather, co-founded by Yale School of the Environment student Jinali Mody, will manufacture cruelty-free, plant-based leather products, such as belts, shoes, and handbags, from fruit and crop waste.
Food waste. Pollution from crop burning. Animal cruelty. These issues were all percolating in the mind of Yale School of the Environment student Jinali Mody ’23 MEM as she made plans to pursue one of her goals — starting a business offering a sustainable product line.
The idea blossomed into Aatma Leather, which will manufacture plant-based leather products — including belts, shoes, and bags — from food and crop waste. The new venture earned Mody and her partner, MIT PhD student Vidit Bhandarkar, the 2022 Sustainable Venture Prize and the audience choice award at April's Startup Yale event. More than $135,000 in cash prizes were awarded in six categories, with each pitch judged by a panel of experts, academics, entrepreneurs, and investors.
"I have always wanted to start my own business in the sustainable products landscape,” says Mody, who named the company for the Sanskrit word for soul. "As a consumer, I am always looking for vegan and cruelty-free products and that is how I landed on the concept for Aatma.”
Mody and Bhandarkar are looking into three different raw materials sourced from crop waste — banana stems, wheat straw, and mango peels — to determine which provides the best leather alternative for specific fashion, furniture, and home goods items. Each provides options for sustainable alternatives to leather made from animals.
In their presentation, Mody and Bhandarkar noted that the manufacturing of leather products and the pulping and harvesting of fruit are waste-intensive processes. Approximately 18,000 liters of water are needed to manufacturer one traditional leather handbag, which is equal to 25 years of drinking water for one person and 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Additionally, 50% of mango fruit and peel is wasted during the pulp process, and 60% of banana plants are wasted during the harvesting process.
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“Their idea is particularly interesting because it transforms the problem of food waste into leather without animal cruelty and in an environmentally responsible manner. The Aatma Leather team is particularly well-suited to achieve this goal with their combined technical and business expertise. I am excited to see what they create with this company,” says YSE Environmental Innovation Fellow Urvi Talaty ’21 MEM.
Mody, who worked at McKinsey & Company on projects related to renewable energy, says the help she received from the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, the Yale School of Management, and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale is what enabled her to move from the idea phase to an actual startup enterprise.
The company now has a prototype, is partnering with a university in India for research and development, and is planning on setting up a pilot factory this summer in a facility close to the location of their raw materials to be managed by new team member Shshank Srivastava, who is based in India and will also oversee research and development. The partners also plan to begin pitching their line of products to fashion brands.
“What I really want people to know is that each consumer can make a difference when they choose products," says Mody. "Just as there are alternatives to fur, there are environmentally friendly alternatives to leather."