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City taps UT incubator to meet 2040 zero waste goal

Friday, November 9, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The city and the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas are turning to startup companies to help find a solution to dramatically reduce waste headed to landfills from Austin.

ATI’s new Circular Economy Incubator, which launched last month, has a handful of enrolled startups and is seeking more by offering investment, mentoring and other resources for companies that find ways to reduce household or commercial waste.

The partnership was approved by City Council on consent in April, with a one-year contract that went into effect in August.

As part of the $250,000 contract – paid for by the city’s Economic Development Department – ATI will work with Resource Recovery to establish another effort focused on agriculture technology, provide business consulting to at least 25 startup companies, assist with the city’s reverse pitch competition, and conduct internship and outreach programs for minority students and community groups.

ATI has also worked with Austin Energy and Austin Water to help those departments run more efficiently, with the city on occasion directly buying or licensing the technology created by participating companies to improve its operations.

Companies already participating in the incubator include Smarter Sorting, which finds ways to reuse hazardous materials to prevent them from being collected for incineration, and re:3d, a 3D printing company that attempts to incorporate recycled plastic into its fabricated products. The program is believed to be only the third circular economy incubator in the country, and organizers hope that Austin can stand out as a destination for entrepreneurs interested in that sector.

“We want to put ourselves more on the map and be a place where innovators working in this space want to come and have the infrastructure around them to help them be successful,” said Natalie Betts, recycling economy development program manager for Resource Recovery.

“We want to be a leader in zero waste, and are willing to think outside the box and be responsible with our investment, but try some pilot things, evaluate how they go and then make a further decision from there. That’s how you meet an ambitious goal of having 90 percent diversion by 2040, she added.

Betts said the contract does not have explicit renewal terms and will come up for review in August, with its success based in large part on the number of participating companies enrolled and creating new waste solutions after a year.

Mark Sanders, director of the incubator for ATI, said Resource Recovery and Austin’s utility companies make good partners for the incubator because they know the use habits and flow of resources throughout the city, and can help small companies identify opportunities to make an impact. With interest in waste reuse and diversion growing at the local government level, he said there could be more than two dozen similar incubators joining Austin in the next five years.

“As opportunities come up, whether we identify them or they identify them, (the city is) very game,” Sanders said. “The city has never been afraid of becoming a partner, because they’re very active and bring lots of good ideas to the table. Most utilities don’t want to be the first to try something. They want to be the third or fourth. But Austin is very good about taking that risk and doing a pilot. You can create whole industries when you’re willing to take that risk.”

Sanders said future expansions of the incubator could include the city providing space or other resources for fledgling companies, though a role as an investment partner would be difficult because of possible questions of favoritism in picking ventures to commit money to.

“Because you have two public entities, with us being a part of UT, that’s where it’s hard to do,” he said. “The public has an appetite for something like that, but the perception of picking a winner in the startup environment gets tricky.”

Photo by Utexas (撮影) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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