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Startup competitions target the circular economy

March 14, 2019
By: Jonathan Dworin

The circular economy, a phrase meant to redefine economic growth beyond the current “take-make-waste” extractive industrial model, is gaining attention around the world as a way to produce more positive environmental and social benefits. Over the past few months, three cities have announced efforts to promote circular economy startups. In New York City, a contest will offer a $500,000 prize to the best idea and business plan that seeks to repurpose the city’s recyclables and manufacture a product to sell to the local market. The City of Phoenix and Arizona State University announced four companies will participate in an incubator affiliated with the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN). Last fall, public sector partners and the university-based Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) collaborated to launch a new Circular Economy Incubator in the region.

These domestic efforts to support circular economy startups are taking place in a global environment where many organizations, countries, and consumers are rethinking their relationship with waste. Notably, China’s decision last year to no longer allow imports of foreign waste materials has prompted a renewed focus on the circular economy in waste-exporting places like the U.S. and Europe.  

Announced last week, the New York City Curb-to-Market Challenge (CMTC) is the brainchild of manufacturing serial entrepreneur Chris Graff. As a way to address the lack of potential markets for recyclable materials, the winning CMTC team’s business plan will receive $500,000, with $100,000 in cash and $400,000 in equity investment. The winning team will also receive guidance and mentorship from Graff and a team of advisors and angel investors, which include recycling industry experts and executives at the city’s economic development and sanitation departments.

Launched through a Regional Innovation Strategies award in 2016, the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN) Incubator in Phoenix offers another approach to supporting the circular economy. With support from Arizona State University and the City of Phoenix, the RISN Incubator announced its most recent cohort of small businesses last week. These companies will participate in targeted workshops at the university, be paired with mentors, and given specific metrics to complete during their cohort term. As these ventures scale, they will be eligible for funding from the Reimagine Phoenix Initiative, which seeks to increase the city’s waste diversion rate to 40 percent by 2020. As of December 2018, the RISN Incubator has supported 13 companies, who have gone on to create 43 jobs, launch 12 products, file three patents, raise nearly $3.0 million in capital, and generate more than $4.0 million in revenue.

The Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) Circular Economy Incubator was announced in October 2018 as a way to “link entrepreneurs with academia, industry, and government to solve global challenges in design and reuse.” In partnership with two city agencies, the Economic Development and Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) departments, the program was launched to help the city meet its waste diversion goal of 90 percent by the year 2040. ATI offers investment, mentorship, and other resources for the four companies falling under its Circular Economy vertical, one of five verticals supported by the incubator.

Abroad, several cities are embarking on their own efforts to support the circular economy. For example, the London Waste and Recycling Board partnered with The Carbon Trust last fall to launch an accelerator program that takes startups through a tailored six-month program focused on commercialization. Other efforts have been launched in Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, and Geneva as well.


Arizona, New York, Texas, Internationalaccelerators, incubators, international, climate