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Venturing forth: Emporsand – empowering women through sanitation

From clinical neuroscience to basic hygiene needs for women, via the EnterpriseTECH STAR programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Jennifer Jia.

Born in China and raised in Canada and Pennsylvania, Jennifer Jia came to Cambridge in 2016 to pursue an MPhil in Medical Sciences at Downing College and started her PhD in Clinical Neuroscience at Girton College in 2017 as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Passionate about making an impact in medicine and global health, she is currently investigating adult brain plasticity at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute following previous research projects at Harvard Medical School and Oxford University.

While continuing her PhD studies in Cambridge, Jennifer is now focusing on another type of impact project that could benefit millions of women worldwide: sanitary pads made of recycled fast fashion clothes that could cost as little as one pence each through the Emporsand startup venture.

“I think affordable sanitary pads are a basic human need, especially in countries like India or Bangladesh, where this is out of reach for a lot of women and as a result they are excluded from social activities,” says Jennifer, a graduate of Pomona College in California.

It all started in 2018 when Jennifer attended the Global Grand Challenges Summit, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. She mentored an undergraduate team that came up with the sanitary pad idea and won the Engineering Collaboration Challenge, which biannually brings together the Academies of Engineering from the UK, US, and China for the Summit. From then, she was hooked on the project and founded Emporsand.

To move the concept forward, Jennifer pitched the idea to the EnterpriseTECH STAR, a pilot programme for EnterpriseTECH graduates. The programme, designed and led by Dr Rebecca Myers, was launched in September 2019 to help 20 EnterpriseTECH graduates accelerate with their early-stage startups.

The programme helped Jennifer in defining the business model, structuring the company, and providing tips for approaching investors. Hendrik Runge, a PhD student from her EnterpriseTECH STAR cohort, joined the team shortly after the end of the programme.

“EnterpriseTECH STAR exceeded well beyond my expectations. Not only did the mentors coach me to become a better leader, but the lectures and workshops also provided invaluable lessons on how to manage legal, financial, and founding team details,” says Jennifer.

The venture is still in its early stages. In October, Jennifer pitched the idea at the House of Commons to the UK Business Start Up Competition sponsored by the SJL Foundation – and was awarded a £2,000 grant and free business monitoring. Subsequently, the venture was featured on the BBC. She says the grant will help with design and testing stages of the product.

“Jennifer’s product will help reduce carbon emissions from the production and distribution of fast fashion, one of the world’s biggest contributors to carbon emissions, and provides affordable sanitary care products for potentially half a billion females in the world,” said Simon Lancaster, founder of the SJL Foundation.

The venture aims to address the problems caused by the unaffordability of sanitary products for millions of women globally, many of whom use leaves and rags that can cause infections. Many such women are restricted to stay indoors during their period, missing school and work.

Emporsand plans to start marketing the product in India, where sanitary products are out of reach for many women. By sourcing raw material from clothing, they intend to start in large manufacturing cities to reduce production and transportation cost. Jennifer says they hope to begin testing the product and launch a crowdfunding campaign within the next six months.

Tom Britton, a Cambridge MBA graduate and co-founder of the investment firm SyndicateRoom, was one of Jennifer’s mentors at the EnterpriseTECH STAR programme. He commented: “Jennifer is an incredibly driven entrepreneur whose passion and ingenuity have led her to design a product that is not only good for the environment, being made from recycled materials, but has an additional social impact by dramatically reducing the costs of sanitary pads to a level that is affordable by nearly all.”