Timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, vehicle manufacturer General Motors (GM) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have announced the winners of the Circular Economy Challenge.
The Circular Economy Challenge seeks solutions that enable increased and equitable production of renewable and recyclable raw materials for products and packaging, design and production of mass-market clothing and apparel that are recycled and recyclable or biodegradable at end of life, new business models that encourage extending the lifetime of products rather than frequent purchases and recycling of complex products like electronics.
“The Circular Economy Challenge seeks tech-based solutions that help people create and consume goods that are renewable, repairable, reusable and recyclable,” says Sharon Bort, sustainability community officer for MIT Solve based in Cambridge, Mass.
Solve is an initiative of MIT that advances lasting solutions from tech entrepreneurs to address the world's most pressing problems. Each year, MIT Solve launches four Global Challenges across its pillars: Economic Prosperity, Health, Learning and Sustainability. In 2019, Solve’s Sustainability pillar launched the Circular Economy Challenge.
GM entered its second-year partnership with Solve through a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Education grant.
“The MIT Solve platform provides General Motors the opportunity to collaborate with and support innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs from all over the world,” says Ken Kelzer, GM vice president of global vehicle components and subsystems in Detroit. “As our industry continues its evolution and revolution, General Motors’ success will be entirely dependent on a skilled workforce that can help us drive mobility solutions of the future.”
Winners of the Circular Economy Challenge announced this week include:
- AIR-INK: AIR-INK captures and sequesters carbon found in air pollution to produce industrial-grade inks and pigments for high-grade printing materials.
- Algramo: Algramo is scaling reusable packaging on a global level by providing packaging that communicates with its Internet of Things-connected vending machines to dispense fast-moving consumer goods into reusable packaging.
- BioCellection: BioCellection breaks down low-grade, unrecyclable polyethylene plastics into chemical intermediates and then uses these intermediates to make performance materials for cars and construction that are more sustainable than traditional industrial materials.
- Mylea: Mylea is a substitute for traditional animal leather made from fungal mycelium that’s grown in fibrous agricultural waste like sawdust or sugarcane, replacing animal- and petroleum-based leather with a high-quality alternative without harming any animals.
- Queen of Raw: Queen of Raw is a marketplace for businesses to buy and sell unused textiles, keeping them out of landfills and turning pollution into profit.
- The Renewal Workshop: The Renewal Workshop operates a zero waste circular system for apparel and textile brands that recovers the full value of products already created.
- Rheaply: Rheaply provides software for commercial clients that integrates resource sharing, asset management and sustainability metrics on a user-friendly platform, thereby unlocking assets that are hidden in storage, underutilized or bound for landfills.
- Xilinat: Xilinat uses a patented process to transform agricultural waste into a high-quality sugar substitute that looks and tastes identical to sugar, yet is ideal for diabetics, low in calories and protects teeth against cavities.
The Circular Economy Challenge kicked off in May with $100,000 total in grant funding awarded to the top innovative solutions. Other prize sponsors include Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Vodafone Americas Foundation, Schmidt Futures, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and the Andan Foundation.
Solve received more than 300 solutions for the Circular Economy Challenge. Finalists have been invited to pitch their solutions this week at Solve Challenge Finals, Solve’s annual pitch event during U.N. General Assembly Week in New York City. Solve will deploy its global community of private, public and nonprofit leaders to form partnerships these Solver teams need to scale their impact.
For the two prizes GM sponsored, the company sought solutions that foster prosperity and social mobility for underrepresented community members and solutions that help communities shift toward a more circular economy through zero waste and zero carbon, according to Kelzer.
“The goal of the challenge is to help advance solutions that will help our world shift toward circular supply chains where materials which may not have a clear reuse are given a second life. It provides tech entrepreneurs with funding to unlock and implement their solutions,” he says. “There are innovations happening around us that are lacking access to capital and expertise they need to reach its full potential and be scaled—the Circular Economy Challenge is a platform to help make these innovations a reality.”
Any individual or group with a relevant, tech-based solution was able to apply for the Circular Economy Challenge.
“Solve looks for a diverse portfolio of solutions across geography, development stage and team member background,” says Bort. “At Solve, we believe that talent and ingenuity exist everywhere. Through our open innovation platform, we aim to source promising, early-stage solutions that may lack access to critical resources needed to scale. By identifying these entrepreneurs, understanding their needs and connecting them to resources, Solve’s goal is to help scale their work globally. Waste is a growing, global issue. To change course, we’ll need creative ideas, new technologies and innovative ways to reduce, reuse, recycle.”