ICUBE grant-winning business turning food waste into wearables
There may come a time when the next blouse or pair of gym shorts you buy are made of banana peels, rotten tomatoes, coffee grounds or mouldy bread.
It’s not as gross as it sounds. And in fact, the future of fashion depends on the use of biodegradable and carbon-neutral materials, says Avneet Ghotra, a 2018 alumna of the University of Toronto Mississauga who specialized in environmental science and biochemistry. She is putting that notion to the test with ALT TEX, the company she co-founded last fall with her best friend, Myra Arshad, who studied business at York University. Their B2B startup, currently part of the Scale Up program at UTM’s ICUBE business incubator, was recently awarded a grant of $30,000 from the Lo Family Social Venture Fund.
“We are in a space involving intensive research and development, and that requires a lot of investment, so we are really grateful for this support,” Ghotra says.
A chief problem in today’s fashion industry, she explains, is that most textiles are blended with the synthetic and non-renewable fiber polyester, rendering them unrecyclable. Steering away from the use of fossil fuels, decomposable bioplastics have emerged in recent years, which are being used for food packaging, medical implants and 3D printing.
Decomposable bioplastics are typically made from cornstock, but Ghotra doesn’t want to create competition for a crop already used for feedstock, human consumption and alternative fuel. Plus, she notes, there’s no need to plant more corn when there is an existing supply of unused post-industrial food waste— from growers, producers and retailers—containing the same biological building blocks for producing their bioplastics.
Ghotra and Arshad have been conducting lab experiments, starting with discarded apples, to create a polyester-replacement fabric that is optimally strong, durable, decomposable and cost-effective. They are also working to build partnerships with farmers and juiceries to access their waste. Their efforts hold the promise of diverting significant amounts of clothing as well as organic waste—which emits the greenhouse gas methane—from landfills, while enabling the fashion industry to be more sustainable.
ALT TEX is one of three ICUBE-affiliated companies—out of a total of 14 winners connected to U of T’s ecosystem of 11 business accelerators—receiving grants from the Lo Family Social Venture Fund. The fund champions U of T students or recent graduates with ideas for promising social enterprises that could have a global impact. Another winner is Yi Ru, a graduate student in mechanical and industrial engineering whose YourTable app is trying to combat loneliness by helping people eat together. Billed as the LinkedIn for food, it allows solo diners to connect with each other to enjoy a meal at an eatery, and take advantage of specials from its restaurant partners.
Recipient Jamie Lee, a U of T Rotman Commerce alumna, has also created a food-focused mobile app. Swate tracks the ingredients in your fridge and pantry, to help you know what to cook and when to cook it. After you scan your grocery receipt, the app will notify you when your spinach or eggs are about to expire. Swate will also suggest healthful, delicious recipes in the order of your food’s best-before dates. The goal is to help people make smarter food choices and save money while reducing household food waste.
The three startups are among several that are nurtured each year by ICUBE, a hub for exploring new business ideas and supporting students and community members with early-stage enterprises. Workshops, mentorship, a co-working space, special events and connections to funding opportunities are among ICUBE’s core offerings. It’s recently introduced ICUBE Studio helps U of T-based startups in the university accelerator network get graphic design, marketing and software development help from talented UTM students; the latter gain work-integrated learning experience.
“ICUBE has been a huge catalyst in terms of helping us understand the areas of our business that need attention, instilling confidence in our idea, helping us understand the patent process and how to access investment,” Ghotra says. “It’s pushing us forward and exposing us to more opportunities.”