By Brendan Hastings
February 4, 2021
In November, the Delta Institute hosted its annual ‘BOOST’ conference for sustainable entrepreneurs. The Delta Institute works across the Midwest to solve environmental challenges. Their work encompasses: resiliency and community planning, brownfields and coal redevelopment, deconstruction and waste reduction, green infrastructure and sustainable buildings. Every year they host the annual ‘BOOST’ conference, which provides a “platform for early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative products and services to provide sustainable change to the Midwest”. This year’s winner was Zumwalt Acres, an Illinois-based regenerative farming, family business. As the winner of the showcase, they will receive a cash grant to fund their work.
Although there is only one winner, all the entrepreneurs demonstrated a real impact toward sustainability in the Midwest. Below is a recap of the presentations but you are also able to watch the full length video of the presentations on Delta Insitute’s YouTube channel.
The first start-up was the Chicago Environmental Educators, with founders Ayesha Qazi and Ylanda Wilhite. Their mission was to “create a supportive network for Chicago educators who teach environmental science or topics within environmental science in a formal or informal classroom (public, private, alternative, charter, university)”. Additionally, they aim to support BIPOCQ educators and create an enriching community to address environmental justice issues.
The group has a long-term goal of creating an “Intergenerational Summer Program in collaboration with community orgs & institutions”. In the short-term they have focused on community clean-up events, environmental justice, kayaking for conservation, and soil and water testing.
With the Boost grant, CEE was looking to eliminate program fees for their participants, to provide stipends for underpaid teachers and nonprofit employees, and to purchase scientific materials for teacher and student use.
The second start-up was Dynamhex, founded by Sunny Sanwar. Utilizing code and publicly available data, Sunny’s firm enables individuals, businesses and governments to craft and monitor their own sustainability programs. By analyzing the available data for a building, the program can recommend actionable steps for the entity to take to reduce their carbon footprint. Dynamhex is already helping several government agencies track and monitor their own programs, and has even been used as the monitoring mechanism encoded within legislation. If it had won the Boost grant, Dynamhex would have given access to its platform to five-thousand people in the Chicagoland area.
The third start-up was Mycocyle, founded by Joanne Rodriguez. Clearly the most mature of the start-ups, Ms. Rodriguez’s firm has been endorsed by Fast Company, Clean Tech Open and even the EPA. The firm utilizes the enzymes of mushrooms and other fungi, known as mycelium, to break down commercial waste such as asphalt, shingles, plastics and insulation. This eliminates the need to put these materials into landfills and instead aims to make them reusable. The chemical properties of mycelium enable it to break down natural and man-made chemicals, such as hydrocarbons. Ikea now uses mycelium as a substitute for plastics because of its reusability. With the Boost grant, Mycocyle will look to expand its waste remediation processes.
The last and winning start-up of the conference was Zumwalt Acres, founded by sisters Gavi Welbel and Remi Welbel. The tandem has been working to build a sustainable farm from their family’s unused land in northern Illinois. Their farm focuses on regenerative agriculture. They were inspired by the harmful effects of conventional farming, which causes toxic pollution, soil degradation and food with low nutritional value. Instead they aimed to demonstrate a new kind of farming, regenerative agriculture, which utilizes agroforestry, biochar production and improved soil management. This reduces carbon emissions, increases soil viability and increases the national value of the food.
Recently the farm has hosted multiple sustainable farming interns, who want to learn about regenerative agriculture. With the Boost grant, the farm hopes to provide a stipend for these workers who live at the farm and learn from the team first-hand.
Congratulations to Zumwalt Acres for winning this year’s BOOST grant and to all this year’s presenters. These groups showed unique and innovative ways to increase sustainability in the Midwest. They will continue to blaze a path forward for all of us into a sustainable future.