Yale-NUS students create start-ups for positive impact amongst communities

7 January 2020

By Bilge Arslan

Shania Mustika and Toby Limanto. Image provided by Charmaine Chua.

Besides pursuing their academic passions, many Yale-NUS students also take on extra-curricular endeavours. Some of them choose to create their own start-ups in various fields that aim to make a difference to the world around them.

Hinggi, which means cloth in Sumbanese, is a social enterprise that strives to empower women weavers on an Indonesian island called Sumba. Co-founded in 2018 by Toby Limanto (Class of 2020) and Shania Mustika, a student from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Hinggi processes the textiles produced by Sumba’s native women and markets them as corporate gifts to a larger market. “We believe that corporate gifts are more meaningful when they have both social and cultural significance,” Toby said.

Hinggi’s motto, “inspiring hope, weaving communities”, emphasises the duo’s aim to uphold and promote the cultural significance of the textiles. It all began when Toby attended a school community service project in Tana Kandumbuka village in Southwest Sumba last year. “The place is sprawling with rich heritage of weaving textiles that has been passed down through many generations,” he said.

Talking to the women of the village to understand their lives better, Toby and Shania wanted to help them attain self-sustainability through both economic change and social transformation. This led to the creation of Hinggi.

The founders had two main motivations. First, to introduce weaving as a lucrative source of income to decrease human trafficking, which can occur when Sumbanese youths look for economic opportunities overseas. Second, to explore and highlight Indonesia’s culture and traditions – for Toby, an Indonesian, it is a way to reconnect with his roots.

Reflecting on his time at Yale-NUS, Toby believes that the College has provided him with the “dogged attitude to learn all things necessary within or without my domain of interest”, which, he thinks, are crucial competences in a start-up. For instance, Toby picked up basic web design skills on-the-go by watching online tutorials and personally created the landing page of Hinggi.

Coming to Yale-NUS enabled him to change the mindset that he shouldn’t do something that is not taught in school. “Studying here gives me the perfect opportunity to constantly re-invent myself whenever necessary, which I believe is a valuable asset going forward,” Toby said.

Hinggi currently has a network of 60 weavers they can tap on. “We are working to settle supply chain management as a new start-up,” said Toby, adding that he is excited to keep improving the organisation.

Another student-founded start-up is called Man’s Best Friend (MBF). The founding team consists of five students from the Class of 2022 – Johann Wah, Keith Wo, Glen Ang, Hwy Kim, and Tejas Pal – and one student, Nicholas U Jin, who matriculated at Yale-NUS but eventually transferred to the University of Oxford.

In January 2018, Nicholas, the CEO of MBF, took his golden retriever Andy to the beach. There, he realised that Andy’s fur is capable of drying quickly and can withstand dirt effectively. This inspired him to create stain- and water-proof men’s shorts using nanotechnology.

In March 2019, the team started experimenting to achieve the functionality of Andy’s fur coat. They first approached labs and then factories in Thailand and China, going through six prototypes since October 2018. The special material they finally created in August 2019, DualCoat™, is a fabric blend of tencel – a mixture of eucalyptus tree fibre and upcycled cotton – and spandex. It allows for multiple wears before washing the shorts becomes necessary.

Producing clothes from cotton requires a lot of water and pesticides, whereas MBF uses waste water to manufacture their product. MBF hopes to “explore innovative ways to be more sustainable and learn to infuse fashion with technology to make our lives better,” said Johann.

The students’ remarkable achievement has since been featured in news outlets like the The Straits Times, Fox News, NBC, and ABC News.

“The Yale-NUS community is the perfect ecosystem for entrepreneurship,” Keith said. “Here, you can find people with all sorts of talents together in one place.”

Finally, Eddie Lim (Class of 2021) co-founded Thryft with some friends from NUS. Thryft is a second-hand books e-commerce platform which provides customers with an online market by using smart algorithms. This way, the start-up aims to encourage more sustainable consumption.

The idea for the start-up originated from a weekend project. As Eddie and his friends improved the idea, they realised that it can address gaps in the second-hand goods market. Thryft has received much support from NUS – for instance, NUS Libraries supported the students by allowing them to place book drops in the libraries to collect unwanted books to sell on their platform. Furthermore, NUS Enterprise, a department at NUS which promotes innovation and entrepreneurship, has offered Thryft an incubation space next semester to further develop their company.

According to Eddie, his Yale-NUS education provides him with necessary tools to improve the start-up’s algorithms and to inform business decisions. He said: “I deeply appreciate the very encouraging and supportive environment created by my peers at Yale-NUS towards our environmental mission.”