Meet the Innovator – Julia Yan, CEO of Baleena

This month’s Pennovation Works Meet the Innovator spotlight is Julia Yan, CEO of Baleena.

Baleena is a startup pioneering an innovative device working to stop the flow of microfiber waste in laundry to help save our oceans and drinking water. Microfibers are strands of plastic thread, less than 5mm-long, released from clothing. Humans ingest hundreds of thousands of microplastics per year, yet little is being done to tackle this catastrophic pollution. Baleena is working to enhance filtration and size-specificity over current alternatives by offering a user-friendly, low-cost, and highly effective microfiber capturing device. Their device goes into the laundry machine and while clothes tumble around, it captures microplastics before they can exit the machine and go into waterways and oceans. 

Julia has been with the company since its onset. During their first year, Baleena occupied a hybrid lab/office space at the Pennovation Center where they continued their research after winning the University of Pennsylvania's President's Sustainability Prize as well as the Pennovation Accelerator in 2022.

We had a great time getting to know Julia! You can check out our YouTube channel for a recorded version of this interview, or read below to learn more about Julia and Baleena.


Interview Questions - Meet the Innovator Julia Yan:

What is the best part about working at Pennovation?

  • I think the best part would be the community. We really enjoyed as first time entrepreneurs to be surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs that are further along in their career path than we are, and also taking part in all the events, programing, happy hours, all things that happen around here and make us really feel welcome and at home in our first full time jobs.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect about your work and the most challenging?

  • I think what's most rewarding about our work is the impact we can make. That's why we do what we do; to create a collective impact by targeting individuals and households and show them that they can really make a difference and empower them. The most challenging part of what we do, honestly, is navigating all this uncertainty of being entrepreneurs, working in the space, and taking what we know and trying to apply this where we can, but also looking to others for help. 

What does a typical day at Baleena look like for you? 

  • So my typical day is doing a lot of meetings with various startups and nonprofits in this space, and so I do a lot of the conversations with them. We've been also approaching investors more recently, and then at the same time, we love to meet as team of three to really keep each other in check and on the same page. So my day is a combination of those meetings, team meetings, and then if I get some free time, I start to really nail down these applications we’re submitting to various places.

What’s one thing you want people to know about Baleena?

  • One thing I want people to know about Baleena would be that I think a lot of times there is a lot of skepticism about, you know, can one person really make a difference? I think the answer that we really want to get across is yes. When we all come together and build a community of people that do want to be change makers and want to install Baleena in their machines, I think we can make a really big difference. That's where all the microplastics are coming from; a large proportion of them at least are from laundry machines in our households, and so that really is where change can happen.

What has been your favorite event at Pennovation Works so far?

  • There was a pumpkin painting happy hour party happening around Halloween time. That was really great. I think it was the first time seeing all these people come out. I love creativity and art, so that was right up my alley and seeing people also enjoying it was great. I think it was just overall a really fun time.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to fellow innovators or startups? 

  • I've realized that no one really knows what they're doing in this space; so understanding that, and not letting it stop you or impede or intimidate you in any way and knowing how to project confidence moving forward is key. I think it's a lonely path for everyone and knowing you're not alone in it is important.


What are you reading currently? 

  • As a team this week we're reading The Advantage. It's about organizational health, setting OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), and honestly just trying to get on the same page as some of the people we've met. That one is a really good book.

Who inspires you?

  • Fellow female entrepreneurs inspire me the most. We are an all-female founding team, so we look to them to learn from and navigate the space ourselves. One of my favorite entrepreneurs that I’ve met recently is Miranda Wang, Co-founder & CEO of Novoloop.

How did Baleena get to where you are today as a company?

  • We actually started out our senior year of undergrad as a senior design team for our senior engineering capstone project. We applied to various prize competitions, ended up winning a quarter million dollars from the University of Pennsylvania’s President Innovation Prize. That really launched us and gave us the means to do this as a team of three really young entrepreneurs. So that's where we are now and how we got here.

Do you have any hidden talents or hobbies?

  • I do have a lot of hobbies that I like to dabble in. Right now, I'm doing rock climbing and bouldering. I tuft rugs and l like to paint, as well as 3D print and laser cut projects at the makerspace at Penn - so kind of a mix of athletic and artistic hobbies.
Meet the Innovator – Julia Yan, CEO of Baleena