Matanya Horowitz, CEO and founder of AMP Robotics, is dedicated to developing and improving the technology around material identification and recovery to help waste and recycling facility operators and haulers achieve diversion and recovery goals.
Horowitz developed AMP Robotics in 2014 and introduced robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to the U.S. market by designing, building and installing robots in materials recovery facilities (MRFs) for sorting recyclables.
Since the launch of AMP Robotics, Horowitz has scaled up the business and installed a number of technologies in facilities to improve the speed and efficiency of identification, sorting, processing and analysis of material streams to extract the most value for his customers.
“We’re just getting started, and we see our products as the beginning of something much larger,” says Horowitz. “Our mission is to change the fundamental economics of recycling, and we’re on the way to doing that.”
Waste360 recently awarded Horowitz with its first-ever Innovator Award and sat down with him to discuss how he came up with the concept for AMP Robotics, how robotics and technology can help make the industry safer and some of the latest technology trends.
Waste360: How did you launch your career in this field?
Matanya Horowitz: I actually didn’t have too strong of a connection to the recycling industry, but I do remember learning about recycling in elementary school when EcoCycle came to visit my school.
Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by robotics. And when I got to undergrad, there were actually a lot of interesting things going on with robotics, and I thought that it could be a reliable career path. So, I started studying different computer vision topics and robotic motion planning topics.
When I graduated, I was looking for somewhere to put these tools to good use. I visited agriculture, recycling and manufacturing facilities, and what I saw in recycling was that the material stream changes so much day to day and minute to minute that incorporating automation into systems is challenging.
I found the challenge intriguing, however, and thought that tools like robotics and artificial intelligence could bring some new technology options to the waste and recycling industry to improve operations.
So, I came in with my little hammer, which is machine learning, and I looked for different nails to smash into the recycling industry. I very quickly got connected to the Closed Loop Fund and the Carton Council, and they really helped me understand the real issues in the industry and the technology that was needed.
Waste360: How did you come up with the concept for AMP Robotics, and how has the company grown since it was founded?
Matanya Horowitz: The company started with some sketches at the end of 2014, but it really started taking formation when I won a grant from the National Science Foundation through a program called SBIR.
The first focus for AMP was making prototypes in a controlled environment on a conveyor belt. It took us a while to figure out what worked and what didn’t work, but eventually we got some pretty compelling little demos done in the beginning of 2015.
By the end of 2015, we were working in a partnership with the Carton Council and Alpine Waste in Denver to deploy our first system. The system didn’t work very well, and there was a lot to learn, but we were really just a handful of guys working hard to figure out how to make this tech work.
We were making and breaking robots, trying all different methods and spending late nights in the materials recovery facility trying to code. There were a lot of cold nights spent at the MRF trying to work while getting splashed with things like rotten milk, but that hard work eventually paid off, and things started to click.
In 2017, we were able to get some venture funding, and that let us grow from a team of about five people to a team of about 10 people, and it really let us perfect the product.
In 2018, we started to pick up momentum. High-performance, high-reliability systems were running for months at a time without any issues, and people were seeing the value in the technology. They knew that the technology was battle tested, and they really started to believe in our technology.
Now, we are deploying these technologies all over the world and successfully scaling our organization rapidly to meet demand.
So far, we have made the right bets and have worked to resolve a problem that the industry cares about. I am very excited about what we are doing, and I really do believe that we’re in a growth phase where we will grow to support more robots being installed all around the world.
Waste360: Tell us about your role as founder and CEO.
Matanya Horowitz: I have always been focused on the technology and trying to make the system work better over time, but as we have added more staff, my role has evolved more toward understanding our customers’ needs and the issues they may run into.
In addition, I have been trying to build an organization that’s a little bit different than what’s typical in the industry. The way our business is run is that we want to help facilities automate their operations. It’s more than just robots; it’s a vision system for data collection and operational improvements.
Since launching, we have built up strong relationships with our customers, where we are in frequent contact with them to make sure they succeed. We’re not a company that installs products and then doesn’t check in to make sure they are running properly and efficiently. We keep in constant contact because the technology is moving so quickly and getting more and more advanced all the time.
One fun thing we get to do now that we have a solid product to stand on is to think about other ways technology can be used. AI has the potential to do all sorts of exciting things in recycling, and robots are just one of those things. I now spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve our technology for the future. That’s really where my heart is.
Waste360: Can you talk about some of the technology trends you’re seeing in the waste and recycling industry?
Matanya Horowitz: I think there’s a lot of excitement around AI and robotics right now. They are very distinct tools compared to the other technologies that are out there like mechanical-based solutions and infrared, and since they are new tools, they are spreading into the industry at a rapid pace.
For us, we don’t seek to replace the technologies that are out there but rather create new capabilities and products that can serve new niches. I think a major piece of that is utilizing AI to identify materials in environments with difficult conditions, such as the material being really dirty. With AI, we can sort and understand operations without having to restructure what businesses are doing to support our technology.
A lot of other technologies out there can be costly to implement. They are large in size and need the material prepared in a certain way in order to handle the material. Our technologies, on the other hand, are much closer to a human substitute, and I think that’s the key point that really drives the interest in this technology compared to others.
Waste360: How do you think technology helps improve safety within the industry?
Matanya Horowitz: One of the benefits of AI is that it can be very specific about what it identifies, so we can start to have awareness of what’s moving through the facility, such as hazards like propane canisters, roadkill and needles.
This form of automation at least allows you to identify those things, and then hopefully have a level of control. It also allows you to have identification systems wired into emergency stops and allows you to move people away from the most hazardous of conditions.
The robots themselves have all sorts of benefits, and they can’t get things like Hepatitis C if they are poked with a needle. In terms of bringing people out of harm’s way, they are helping to control the environment a little more so people can work in a safer environment.
Waste360: What has been one of your proudest moments in your career thus far?
Matanya Horowitz: I would have to say when we installed our first robot at Alpine Waste & Recycling. It worked for a couple minutes, and then all sorts of issues started to happen. The staff there saw us struggling, but they were all really nice about everything.
When the robot finally started working without any issues, they were really happy for us and shared our excitement. That, to me, was the most rewarding moment.
Another thing for me is we haven’t met the hostility that I originally expected. I thought people would feel like our robots are threatening their jobs, but in reality, we are trying to make the workplace safer and more efficient, and I think people really get that.
Waste360: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Matanya Horowitz: I don’t really have a ton for free time anymore, but when I do get some downtime, I enjoy spending time with my extremely supportive wife and getting outdoors. I have learned to appreciate the simplicity of getting outdoors and living in Colorado allows me to do things like hiking and camping.
Waste360: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the waste and recycling industry?
Matanya Horowitz: I would say that a career in recycling is so much more rewarding than I would have expected. I think a lot of people have this impression that recycling is very dirty, but it’s actually very government driven and an industry that’s transforming very quickly.
I think people under appreciate just how strong of a business you can build in recycling, and if you can build a strong business than you can build interesting opportunities and have fun doing it. It’s hard for people outside of the industry to see that sometimes, but you have to look at the big picture of recycling instead of just a small piece.
Until I got into the industry, I didn’t know all the different areas, and it’s really been interesting to learn about all the different facets of the industry. If you can find an interesting niche in the industry, it’s a path worth taking.