Techtonic: In search of out-of-the-box solutions for waste management

Our cities are drowning in waste; so are our rivers, lakes and oceans. And despite the health hazards it poses, trash is ubiquitous because of our consumptive lifestyle. Our attitude towards waste also finds reflection in the way waste pickers eke out a living in wretched conditions. With existing practices proving to be grossly insufficient, waste management calls for out-of-the-box solutions. Techtonic — Innovations in Waste Management, a nationwide challenge organised by Social Alpha and H&M to identify startups that are using science and technological innovations to deal with an endemic crisis, is a move in the right direction. The five winners of Techtonic will avail of a one-year accelerator programme to scale their innovations, reap the benefits of industry-specific mentorship, and gain access to seed funding to expedite their growth. Madhushree NarayanProgramme Director, Waste Management, gives a low-down on the initiative that has the potential to alter the waste landscape

What is the genesis of Techtonic — Innovations in Waste Management?

Social Alpha (SA) has been committed to working in the waste management sector since its inception in 2016. One of our first investee companies, Hasiru Dala, is a success story in this space. In the last four years, we have been able to build a portfolio of companies that focus on waste treatment and waste-to-value technologies. Another feather in SA’s cap is Phool, a startup based in Kanpur, which uses discarded flowers from temples to create value products. It is now developing eco-friendly leather out of floral waste. Krimanshi turns horticultural waste into feed for the livestock. Saaf Energy transforms food waste into biogas. Green Earth Equipment scientifically treats hazardous (sanitary) waste. All these startups have showcased technological innovations that address waste management and processing through a financially sustainable model and operationally scalable business models. When the H&M Foundation was looking for a partner to build interventions to increase the income of informal waste pickers in Bengaluru, Social Alpha’s entrepreneurial-operating model was a natural fit, as Social Alpha the portfolio companies combine innovations and improving livelihoods of people involved in waste management. So, the idea of Techtonic came about as one of the components of the H&M Foundation programme.

What are the key problem statements that the challenge is going to address?

We identified three problem statements in November after extensive closed-door consultation with the key stakeholders, including representatives from urban local bodies, NGOs, private and public institutions, and waste management startups.

Innovations in Waste-to-Value Space: While many of us realise there is a large potential to extract resources from the waste generated every day, the catch is that the solutions promoting material recovery usually focus on waste streams that have high value. So, the so-called lucrative waste like PET bottles, paper and e-waste, enabled by government policies and existing markets, is being recycled while the rest of the garbage is dumped either on landfills or open grounds. To change this attitude, we need to develop and adopt economically viable technological solutions, which can address the low-value waste streams such as multi-layered plastic and textile waste. However, this is not to say that the challenge won’t accept entries of innovative solutions that deal with waste of high value…

Data-driven Innovation: The data gaps in the waste management sector impede the collection, the effective segregation of waste and the designing of the right kind of treatment technology for the waste generated in a particular area. Without visibility on the composition and quantum of waste, it becomes extremely difficult to design treatment strategies for material recovery. Not only is this data a vital component of urban planning but the real-time traceability of waste can actually benefit the informal waste stakeholders by creating better income opportunities through online transactions. That way they can get rid of the middlemen who influence offline transactions.

Municipal Solid Waste Network Optimisation: Behavioural change has a huge role to play in the waste management sector as segregation is still not happening at an optimal rate. The heterogeneity of waste poses a formidable challenge to material recovery, treatment and disposal. We are looking at startups, which build in tech-enabled innovative solutions with the component of capacity building for stakeholders across the waste management spectrum. Consider how the Bengaluru-based Hasiru Dala, which started out as a non-profit, was able to mobilise the support and resources to build a momentum and then make a profitable business model out of it. Hasiru Dala Innovations has turned waste pickers into mini entrepreneurs.

How exhaustive is the selection procedure for startups?

The selection procedure is quite comprehensive. In the first round, applications will be filtered by the Social Alpha portfolio team where they will assess the startups against a set of internal criteria. This round of screening will give us 20 applicants who will be asked to create a one-year roadmap for implementation. The roadmap will be evaluated by an expert committee, which will whittle down the number of applicants to 10. These 10 finalists will pitch to a grand jury, which will select five winners.

Now that the five winners have crossed the hurdles, what do they finally gain?

The twin objective of this challenge is to curate innovations, which can accelerate waste management and at the same time positively impact the income of the informal waste pickers. SA envisions to work towards this by supporting the selected startups through a one-year accelerator programme that will enable the winners to scale their innovations, avail of industry-specific mentorship, and gain access to seed funding to accelerate their growth.

There are three components of the accelerator programme:

The Market Validation Lab: Each of the winners will be assigned one portfolio manager who will help the startup identify test-bed partners to implement its innovative technology as part of the one-year roadmap. The identification of the test beds will be supported by Saamuhika Shakti, an initiative supported by the H&MF, where seven civil society organisations are working on different aspects of the informal waste pickers’ livelihoods in Bengaluru with a common agenda to enable waste pickers to have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives.

Digitisation and Marketing: Simultaneously, Social Alpha will aid these startups design marketing and digital support tools to articulate the impact their work is creating on the ground. The winners will have the opportunity to consult marketing experts and co-create a plan that can identify impact indicators that need to be brought to the fore, communicating their work to a larger audience. Digital experts will help the startups create the right kind of tools to capture the data in an effective manner, supporting the creation of a transparent waste supply chain.

Demo Day: The accelerator ends with the showcase event — a platform for the 5 startups to present their innovations to important decision-makers, including the government of Karnataka, and investors. This coming together of the crucial stakeholders is possible because of the vast and varied Social Alpha network, which will also enable the innovators to gain market access. Each of these startups will also have access to pitch to Social Alpha for seed capital support of up to Rs 1 crore, post the Social Alpha’s due diligence.