Winners of President’s Sustainability Prize are making a difference for people and the planet

Springboarded by University recognition and support, the alums behind the three prize-winning projects—Baleena, The Community Grocer, and Shinkei Systems—are realizing, even surpassing, their goals.

community grocer team
Eli Moraru won the 2022 President’s Sustainability Prize for his work with Alex Imbot on The Community Grocer (TCG). Moraru and Imbot hope to launch a new business model, revolutionizing food stamp usage by reinventing the corner store and reimagining nutritional assistance.

The President’s Sustainability Prize (PSP) was awarded for the first time in 2022 to three groups with diverse takes on building a cleaner, healthier, more livable planet.

Like the Penn President’s Engagement Prizes, which have been awarded since 2015, and the President’s Innovation Prizes, first given in 2017, the Sustainability Prizes recognize individuals and groups with an ambitious proposal for a post-graduation project that centers environmental or social resilience and will make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each Prize-winning project receives $100,000, and team members each receive a $50,000 living stipend.

Last year, three fourth-year students and two December 2021 graduates received the inaugural Sustainability Prizes: one developing a device to trap microplastics released during laundering; another to help people on food stamps transform raw ingredients into complete, healthy meals; and a third to enhance the sustainability and welfare practices of the fishing industry.

“I am amazed by the remarkable progress of Baleena, The Community Grocer, and Shinkei Systems,” says President Liz Magill. “All three game-changing projects were created with an innovative and sustainable mindset, one that is so central to the Penn ethos. If these Prize winners can accomplish this much in less than a year, it is breathtaking to imagine what’s in store for their future.”

After a year of heads-down work, Penn Today checked in with the prize winners to learn how their visions are coming to life.

Cleaner waters

Nearly eight months have passed since President’s Sustainability Prize winners Sarah Beth Gleeson, Shoshana Weintraub, and Julia Yan launched Baleena, their startup geared toward reducing waterway pollution.

During this time, the team has formed new partnerships with major outdoor brands and nonprofits, participated in several pitch contests, and learned much about product development as they scaled their venture.

“It’s been a thrill connecting with more people in sustainability and finding new mentors,” says Yan, the company’s CEO. “On top of that, we’ve done more fundraising through accelerators, which have really helped shape our product’s development.”

Baleena’s innovative device captures microfibers—tiny particles shed from synthetic clothing—in washing machines before they enter our waterways. Their initial design was a tennis ball-sized porous sphere that could be tossed into washing machines and collect microfibers during laundry cycles.

After tests, however, they discovered a better way to catch these pollutants, Weintraub, Baleena’s chief technology officer, explains. “We found that the ball’s movements were limiting its efficacy. So, by attaching an enclosure to the drum, we’ll be able to gather microfibers better.”

The team has also learned more about the consumer-facing aspects of bringing a product to market. “What we’re building has a value proposition based on the consumer’s goodwill,” says Gleeson, chief operating officer. “Raising awareness of microfiber pollution to the general public is imperative.”

The team has become increasingly involved in local efforts to do just that around Philadelphia, participating in waterway cleanups and joining local coalitions pushing for a circular economy to learn more about the desires of an eco-conscious consumer base.

Looking ahead, the Baleena team strives to curtail microfiber waterway pollution and broaden their impact as they close the loop by recirculating captured textile waste.

Enhancing food access

With The Community Grocer (TCG), Eli Moraru and Alex Imbot hope to launch a new business model, revolutionizing food stamp usage by reinventing the corner store and reimagining nutritional assistance. Moraru, who graduated in December 2021 with a degree in political science and a minor in survey research and data analytics, and business partner Imbot, a 2020 Penn graduate who majored in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainability and environmental management, are working in Philadelphia to create an access point of true nutrition within a neighborhood affected by food apartheid.

The team plans to purchase property at in the Cobbs Creek area of the city and turn it into the pilot location for their innovative approach. The idea is to have two linked spaces—one for purchasing food and a second for preparing meals, thereby complying with federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, regulations—and one common mission, Imbot says: “To help people and provide the resources, ingredients, and information to increase community power and health for everyone.”

The Cobbs Creek location opens in November 2023 and, in collaboration with local nonprofits, will offer breakfast, lunch, dinner, afterschool snacks and grab-and-go offerings throughout the day, as well as education, nutrition, and community resources.

TCG is an empowering model that is rooted in education and health, says Akira Rodriguez, who serves as the project’s advisor. Moraru and Imbot would like to expand into food deserts across America. “Our vision is to provide everyone with the ingredients to live better, healthier lives,” says Moraru, “and we are not going to stop until everyone has that option.”

Disrupting the fishing industry

With a background in engineering and business—and an abiding love of high-quality sushi—Saif Khawaja was perfectly positioned to disrupt the fishing industry. A December 2021 graduate of the Wharton School, Khawaja’s company, Shinkei Systems, introduced a novel approach to processing fish. Using robotics and artificial intelligence, their innovation emulates the Japanese technique known as ikejime, which involves using a sharp knife to pierce the fish’s hindbrain. In addition to resulting in a more humane death, ikejime preserves the quality of the meat, which can otherwise suffer if fish are left to suffocate on a ship’s deck, as they do in most fishing operations.

Since receiving the Sustainability Prize last April, Shinkei Systems expanded to include five staff and relocated to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the team is working on refining the technology. They’re on the verge of launching an industrial version of their product, which could process fish seven times faster than the current technology. “We’ve done a lot of quality validation,” says Khawaja, “and have run some shelf-life testing with an industrial research lab to get harder data on how long the fish will last.”

Their tests suggest this approach can effectively double the shelf life of the fish. The company has run tastings with Michelin star chefs and is currently working with distributors who sell fish to 17 restaurants with a collective 20 Michelin stars. Altogether it’s a been an intense and thrilling year for the company, with lots of promise ahead, Khawaja says.

“I feel like every two to three months the company is a completely different company. I’ve grown a lot in my leadership capacity. Now we’re at a point where a lot of things are aligning, and I’m excited for the next few months.”