Many of the young founders on this year’s list are also focused on their startups’ social and environmental impact.
By Amy Feldman, Alan Ohnsman and Elisabeth Brier
Inflation is high and supply chains are fragile. Old-line businesses are retooling their operations to incorporate robotics and AI-powered software. Companies are looking to use technology to help freight move through ports more easily. And founders are designing new materials and new products that are more sustainable for the long term.
These major trends are all reflected in this year’s Forbes Under 30 list in Manufacturing & Industry. The entrepreneurs and innovators here are building businesses in robotics, freight, new materials and manufacturing software. An increasing and important trend this year: Many of their businesses also have a social or environmental aspect.
Twin sisters Neeka and Leila Mashouf, 26, for example, founded Rubi Laboratories to create more sustainable clothing with their pioneering carbon-negative cellulosic textiles. “Fashion (specifically textile production) is speeding us toward environmental catastrophe,” says CEO Neeka Mashouf, a scientist who earned simultaneous degrees in materials engineering and business administration from the University of California, Berkeley. A pair of jeans made from Rubi’s fabric, by contrast, consumes no water or land, actively removes CO2 from the atmosphere and is biodegradable. Having raised $4.5 million in funding, the startup is now signing pilot agreements with clothing brands.
Alex Rappaport, 27, who studied environmental engineering and entrepreneurship at Tufts, is similarly focused on the environmental impact of production. He cofounded ZwitterCo to take advantage of breakthrough advances in filtration to help companies take more harmful stuff out of their wastewater. ZwitterCo’s membranes can process fats, oils and grease, and still last for years. The company has raised $44 million in venture funding (deep tech firm DCVC led its Series A) and expects to have more than 1 million gallons of wastewater treatment capacity set up by year end.
Meanwhile, Aarav Chavda and Roland Salatino, avid scuba diverse and rock climbers who are 27 and 28, founded Inversa Leathers to make environmentally regenerative leathers from invasive species, including the lionfish and the Burmese python. The duo took their company through Harvard’s startup accelerator and raised $2 million in funding. And Kezi Cheng, a 29-year-old immigrant from Xi’an, China with a Ph.D. from Harvard, cofounded Flo Materials to commercialize a new class of recyclable polymers to enable sustainable plastics manufacturing, starting with eyeglass frames.
A number of entrepreneurs on the list this year are tackling supply-chain troubles. Former Uber engineers Rahul Sonwalkar and Tanuj Tiwari, 25 and 24, cofounded LiveTrucks to use software to eliminate wasted trucking capacity at ports and warehouses. With $3.5 million in funding, they’ve launched projects with Whole Foods and Johns Manville. Kargo founder Sam Lurye, 24, has raised $38 million from Founders Fund and others to create smart loading docks outfitted with cameras, lidar and artificial intelligence to gather data on incoming and outgoing freight in real time. The data generated eliminates waste and labor inefficiency, helping to both reduce prices and increase sustainability, Lurye says. And Harshita Arora, a 21-year-old Indian immigrant, cofounded AtoB, a company that offers zero-fee fuel cards and payroll products to the nation’s truckers—and is valued at $800 million.
On the factory floor, meanwhile, Russell Nibelink, Austin Appel and Xiao Yang Kao, who are 27, 29 and 25, started Overview.ai in 2018 to design and develop inspection systems for factories that rely on deep learning technologies. The company has now raised $13 million from GV and Blumberg Capital for expansion. And Iranian immigrant Seyed Sajjadi, 28, cofounded nFlux, which uses AI to understand all steps in a manual manufacturing process so that it can train human operators. It’s raised $10 million, and counts NASA and the U.S. Space Force as customers.
Other young innovators are using robotics technology for new purposes. Jamie Balsillie and Wilson Ruotolo, 28 and 29, are cofounders of Hedgehog, which is using robotics to make protein-rich mushrooms and fungi affordable at scale. CEO Balsillie figures that by automating production, which both cuts labor cost and increases yield, the overall cost for a pound of their fungi will drop by 70%. “I’m driven to create a food system where healthy foods are affordable and environmental impacts are minimal,” he says.
Basic products also get a major upgrade by some of our Under 30s this year. Frustrated by dealing with period care during athletic competitions, Stanford engineers Greta Meyer and Amanda Calabrese, both 25, reinvented the tampon with a proprietary spiral design that absorbs more evenly and won’t leak before it’s full. Since its 2018 founding, Sequel has raised $5 million in venture funding and expects $10 million in revenue next year. Courtney Toll and Anabel Love, 27 and 26, similarly reinvented a common household item—the iron—with Nori because it frustrated them personally. “The hardware industry is typically seen as a boys’ club, with over 70% of founders being male,” says COO Love. “Courtney and I did not let that deter us.”
To find the very best in Manufacturing & Industry, Alan Ohnsman, Elisabeth Brier and I (helped by Forbes summer intern Ethan Steinberg) combed through hundreds of nominations submitted online or generated by our own reporting. We then sent the top candidates to our team of expert judges to help us choose the final 30. This year our judges were Aicha Evans, CEO of Zoox; Tessa Lau, cofounder and CEO of Dusty Robotics; and Haley Marie Keith, cofounder and CEO of Mito Materials and an alum of the 2021 Under 30 list in Manufacturing & Industry.