As part of Austin’s goal to reach zero waste as a community by 2040, the city has developed a social innovation program to help turn valuable raw materials that are currently leaving local businesses, nonprofits and institutions as waste into the foundation of new social enterprises.
Named the [Re]Verse Pitch Competition and launched in 2015, this competition gives local businesses and institutions the chance to partner with entrepreneurs to develop innovative reuse solutions for their byproducts. Going into its third effort in 2018, [Re]Verse Pitch has received the Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC).
This year’s competition kicked off on January 17, when entrepreneurs heard presentations from various material suppliers about their waste products. Discarded materials up for grabs include everything from oyster shells and fabric scraps to wine bottles.
On January 18, challenge participants began their sprint toward a final business idea, plan and solution using the former discards in their new venture. Expert judges will hear final presentations at the [Re]Verse Pitch finale on March 7.
Waste360 recently sat down with Natalie Betts, program manager of recycling economic development for the City of Austin/Austin Resource Recovery and Economic Development Department, to discuss this year’s competition.
Waste360: How and when did the [Re]Verse Pitch Competition begin?
Natalie Betts: The first competition took place in fall 2015. The competition started when we realized that there were potentially valuable waste streams in our city that were being generated in large quantities but weren’t being put to good use because no one was actively seeking out these materials.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a good use for them somewhere. We could see these materials being posted in our business-to-business reuse platform, the Austin Materials Marketplace, but we couldn’t find a good home for them. We believed that if the creative entrepreneurs in Austin knew about these materials, they could come up with viable business ideas that would put those materials to good use locally and, with some support, make those ideas a reality.
Waste360: Who do you partner with to put on this competition?
Natalie Betts: Our primary partners are the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, a national nonprofit headquartered in Austin that works on circular economy issues, and the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth and Renewal within the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin. In addition, we have more than two dozen promotional partners that help us get the word out to the startup, student, artist, nonprofit and business communities. Six different outside entities have contributed prizes for the winners, and mentors have joined in from organizations and businesses across the community. It is a true community effort to make this competition happen.
Waste360: Who can participate and how do they sign up?
Natalie Betts: We have had everyone from high school students to experienced small business owners to retirees participate. You do need to attend our event in Austin that kicks off the competition and, if you are the winner, establish your business in Austin. Competitors submit ideas through our online competition platform and receive a mentor who helps them refine that idea during the competition. Eight finalists are selected to pitch at the final event.
Waste360: How are the submissions judged and by whom?
Natalie Betts: Submissions are judged using a judging criteria developed by the City of Austin that evaluates overall impact and feasibility, business viability, economic development impact and zero waste and sustainability. A panel of five judges chooses the finalists and the winners. The judges are lenders, investors and social impact leaders in the community. They represent the individuals and organizations that a startup business would need to successfully pitch its business to in the real world beyond our competition for funding and other support.
Waste360: What is the prize and who is sponsoring it?
Natalie Betts: There is a cash prize pool of $20,000 that is provided by five different City of Austin departments. In addition, we have prizes coming from local businesses that provide business and startup support, including an incubation package to the Tarmac TX program, memberships to Capital Factory (an entrepreneurship community and co-working space), co-working access from WeWork, financial coaching from American Bank, promotional materials from BuildASign, coaching services from Assemble and business education from the City of Austin Small Business Program.
Waste360: What are the competition’s goals?
Natalie Betts: The goals of the competition are to raise awareness of the economic value and potential of byproduct and surplus materials currently going to waste, to engage the social entrepreneurship and business communities in solving our zero waste goal, to launch and support local businesses that create jobs in Austin using local waste products and to move Austin’s economy one step closer toward a circular economy model.
Waste360: What successes have past winners or participants experienced?
Natalie Betts: We are really proud of the success of our 2016 Winner, GrubTubs, which has gone on to win the WeWork Creator Awards Regional Finals (and receive a $360,000 award) and has been accepted into the Food+City Challenge Prize finals as part of the SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event. Additionally, another [Re]Verse Pitch Finalist, Re:3D, just won the WeWork Creator Awards Global Finals and received $1 million.