Meet our Hult Prize 2023 semifinal winners, Many Arcs
Three MBA students are preparing to compete in the penultimate stage of the Hult Prize with an idea to make the fashion and building industries more sustainable.
Part-time MBA students Zhaojie Yan, Zane Ng and Sunjit Bhatt (pictured, left to right) are the brains behind Many Arcs, a startup idea that aims to divert textile waste and worn-out clothes from landfills and recycle them into eco-friendly insulation material for homes and buildings.
The team calls this material 'Fashion Fill'.
The trio formerly known as 'Fashion Forward' are one of 23 teams that advanced from the Hult Prize semifinal summits that took place in Melbourne and 11 other cities around the world last month.
Informally known as 'the Nobel Prize for students', the competition sees thousands of students pitch business ideas that can help solve pressing social or environmental issues.
Many Arcs was declared the winner of the Melbourne Summit held on campus in June, becoming the only one of four Melbourne Business School teams to advance past the semis.
The Melbourne Summit also featured a talk by Team Flexie (pictured above). The team of MBA students from Melbourne Business School became the first Australian team to make the Hult Prize Global Finals last year.
In total, more than 8,000 startup teams and 44,000 individuals from around the world took part in this year's competition.
"We put a lot of work into the lead-up to the semifinals, so we were quite happy that we proceeded through to the next round," said Sunjit.
The team practised their pitch extensively, rehearsing it "at least 50 times" before the event. During their preparation, they also incorporated feedback from Centre for Sustainability and Business Executive Director Dr Gary Veale and Associate Professor of Strategic Management Kwanghui Lim.
And the judges took note.
"The team painted a compelling picture of how they would address the challenges and grow the business, which is what ultimately convinced the judges to select them as the winning team," said Hult Prize Melbourne Summit judge Julia Lu (pictured, far left), who is Head of Strategy and Venture Design at AGL Australia.
Judge Deborah Donehue (pictured, third from right), an executive career and leadership coach, also praised the team's strong vision, tenacity and resources to make their "disruptive" idea a reality.
"The team is delivering improvement to two industries that pose huge threats to our climate, and they have the passion to solve it," she said.
Many Arcs is now competing in the first phase of the Hult Prize Global Accelerator stage, where they will go through a series of business challenges to fast-track building their company.
At the conclusion of the first stage, six of the 23 startups will be invited to an in-person accelerator as well as the Global Finals in Paris in September. This year, five runner-up teams will receive US$100,000 as seed money with the winner taking home the US$1 million grand prize.
Meeting through the Part-time MBA
The team met one another through the Part-time MBA program.
During a dinner break in an after-hours Finance class earlier this year, Zane asked his classmate Zhaojie whether he would be interested in teaming up for the Hult Prize.
"I wanted to do it, he wanted to do it, and he didn’t have anyone else, I didn't have anyone else," recalls Zhaojie.
From there, the pair invited Sunjit, whom Zhaojie knew from a previous class, to come on board.
"For the first few sessions, we all got together at MBS and just chatted all things fashion and sustainability," said Sunjit. "Just talked about everything that came to mind throughout the value chain."
Wanting to make an impact in Australia, the team considered trying to improve many areas of the value chain.
They ruled out addressing manufacturing because their research showed majority of fashion-related manufacturing are carried out overseas. They also ruled out the 'consumption' part of the fashion value chain as it would require consumers to change their behaviour – "a real tough ask for a startup", said Sunjit.
They then focused on finding ways to reuse discarded clothing. The idea of converting it into some type of building material was first brought up by Zane, a structural engineer in the building industry.
They then pitched it to Dr Veale from the Centre for Sustainability and Business, who helped refine it further.
"The insulation idea stuck because of the potential impact and it's where our areas of expertise collided," said Sunjit, who has worked in fashion design and sustainability.
The Fashion Fill difference
During their preparation for the semifinals, the Many Arcs team conducted research and surveys into what was needed to make their startup idea work – and what they found was promising.
"Each time we speak to a customer, we become more confident that we can make this happen," said Zhaojie.
"We are more cost-effective because we are not using virgin materials and we are less energy intensive. And we're helping the fashion industry solve a problem at the same time. We're filling a market gap for construction materials."
The team's idea also addresses another problem in the building industry, which is health hazards posed by existing insulation materials such as fibreglass.
"If you touch the conventional insulation filling, you will get some skin irritation," Zane said.
"Normally, people use gloves when they handle this stuff. Sometimes it gets into your lungs and can cause irritation. So, for us, because our filling is made out of recycled clothes, it's just like touching a pair of jeans."
Future beyond the Hult Prize
Winning the million-dollar Hult Prize would be a welcome result for Many Arcs, but the team plans to proceed with their business idea regardless of the competition's outcome.
"We will try to seek more funding either from venture capital or government grants," said Zhaojie.
"And we'll continue with R&D processing. Get the prototype ready. Once we have a prototype, it will be easier to attract more funding and investment."
For now, each team member takes charge of certain aspects of the business depending on their expertise.
Sunjit, a fashion sustainability specialist, takes care of the supply side of the business in sourcing used clothing. Zane, a structural engineer, oversees demand by speaking with potential buyers such as architects, developers and builders.
Zhaojie, who has a master's degree in accounting and finance from the University of Adelaide, manages the business model.
"I think that we all came to this problem with the same kind of motivation: To make a difference and learn along the way," said Sunjit.
Sunjit encouraged future Hult Prize aspirants to "join a team that you are going to enjoy working with because then it doesn't matter what you end up doing. It will be a joy".
"And because the missions for Hult Prize are always about creating a change through social entrepreneurship, there will be a positive outcome to all the work that you put in together," she added.