Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program.

Back in 2015, Charlotte Sullivan was weeding a perennial bed at the Queens County Farm Museum, an historic urban farm in Queens, New York when she began to wonder whether the milkweed, usually thought of as a weed, could be cultivated as a useful crop. If so, what could be done with the raw material—the milkweed floss? To help answer this question, Charlotte enlisted the expertise of Alayna Rasile, a textile artist, product designer, and Montana State University MFA student.

Together, Charlotte and Alayna discovered that milkweed floss has incredible thermal properties and a fascinating historical legacy. The more they researched the plant, the more fixated they became on the ecological implications of milkweed as well. Milkweed is the host plant for the monarch butterfly, a beautiful and beloved insect as well as an important pollinator species that is on the decline. They learned that an additional 1.8 billion milkweed plants would be needed in North America to bring the monarch butterfly population back to a sustainable size. Clearly, milkweed does have value.

Charlotte and Alayna spent several years of research and development in their respective fields of organic agriculture and art and design, and they arrived at a jacket design that uses milkweed floss as insulation, and they founded May West. By creating a market demand for milkweed, May West helps fulfill the monarch’s need for food and habitat while simultaneously creating a sustainable fashion alternative to a wardrobe staple. 

“Being a student entrepreneur means that I have the luxury to take risks, and be bold and adventurous with the launch of the startup,” said Alayna. “But it also means that I am spread extremely thin and need to be resourceful and creative with how to accomplish goals.”

With the help of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lift program, May West has spent the summer strategizing their first jacket production run, scheduled for later this fall. Charlotte and Alayna have been matched with Techstars mentor (and Austin Accelerator ‘18 alum) Andrew Gibbs-Dabney of Livsn Designs to help them grow their company.

“Through the LaunchPad, we’ve been able to connect with a network of thoughtful mentors with a diverse range of expertise and advice,” said Charlotte. “The ‘Give First’ mentality of the Techstars mentors, alumni, and staff allowed us to leave the Lift cohort equipped with an expanded network of generous, willing-to-assist industry professionals. Their support will be invaluable as May West continues to evolve and grow.”

May West embodies a value system that places importance on new manufactured products being regenerative rather than destructive in the process of their creation. The brand exemplifies how designers can consider the needs of other living things, both in their supply chain and in manufacturing decision making.


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