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Helping Austin Reach Zero Waste through Inspiring Entrepreneurship

Article-Helping Austin Reach Zero Waste through Inspiring Entrepreneurship

To reach its goal of being a zero waste city by 2040, the City of Austin recently launched a new program to create local end markets for challenging materials. Realizing that some unwanted materials in the community had potential value but no local market, the city’s Recycling Economic Development Program and office of innovation partnered with community groups to create Austin’s first ever [Re]Verse Pitch Competition.

The competition brought together local businesses to pitch byproduct materials to entrepreneurs who then designed new business ideas around those byproducts. This will help Austin in its quest to keep at least 90 percent of discarded materials out of the landfill.

Today, we cannot effectively repurpose reusable materials in a silo. We also want to consider economic feasibility, creating jobs and many other factors. The [Re]Verse Pitch Competition brought together great minds and opportunities to get real about turning trash into treasure, in collaboration with our most valuable resource—our  local entrepreneurs.

The byproducts in the competition included spent brewery grain from a local craft brewery, wicker baskets that go unsold at Goodwill, vinyl banners from a sign company, waterproof clog shoes from a county correctional facility, and unsold VHS tapes from a library book resale store. Five companies and institutions pitched these byproducts, describing the volume of material available, its properties, potential reuse opportunities, and the terms (e.g. price, pick-up frequency) that they would require to provide the byproduct to an entrepreneur.

After this opening pitch, entrepreneurs had five weeks to work with mentors and advisors to create a business idea that repurposed the byproduct in a viable new or expanded business operation.

The prize for winning the [Re]Verse Pitch Competition was $10,000 in seed funding for the new enterprise.  The winner will need to raise $5,000 on their own for the venture in order to receive the full $10,000 prize.  

The competition started in November 2015 with the byproduct material pitches to an expert judging panel. After an initial evaluation from the judging panel, eight finalists were selected to present their ideas at the final pitch event in December. Ideas ranged from repurposing waterproof clog shoes into safer slip-resistant high heels and using leftover vinyl for new products like backpacks. Finalists included experienced business people and brand new entrepreneurs alike, including one team of high school students who proposed a glass recycling plant to produce glass colorant.

The winner was selected by a panel of judges and with participation from the Austin community. Judging was based on the business venture’s viability, sustainability impact, economic impact, and social impact, along with how effective the entrepreneurs delivered their pitch.

After public input and judging concluded, Austin’s [RE]Verse Pitch Competition awarded the $10,000 innovation prize to Austin, Texas resident Brandon Ward for his idea of turning spent grain, a byproduct from the brewing process, into “Brewnola” granola bars.

Ward presented alongside two team members, Matt Miller and Ceschino Brooks de Vita, who are his classmates at the UT McCombs School of Business. Their winning pitch proposed creating a company that would pay employees $24 per hour, locally source ingredients for the granola bars, use compostable packaging, and donate a portion of proceeds to Austin-area homeless shelters.

After breweries extract sugar from barley to make beer they're left with spent grain. It's usually used to feed cattle, but Ward and his team wanted to create something people can eat.

Ward spent countless hours in his kitchen and it took 70 variations of the recipe to get it just right. Wasabi and peanut butter have worked and Ward is also perfecting salsa and barbecue flavors. The team wants to sell the bars as snack food. If all goes well, by next spring there will be less grain in the landfills and bar patrons will be snacking on Brewnola Bars.

“I'm not sure that we ever would have become aware of the environmental impact of spent beer grain if not for the Reverse Pitch Competition,” Ward said. “The competition helped open our eyes to this problem and gave us the opportunity to solve it.  Hence, with help from the City of Austin, Brewnola has been born.”

Ward plans to use the prize funds to prototype the product and conduct market research before launching larger scale production and distribution.

In addition to inspiring entrepreneurs to look at waste as a profitable venture, this competition also served as a prototype for challenge prizes at the City of Austin. The City’s Office of Innovation is exploring how challenge prizes might be utilized as a tool for other public challenges in the future.

The [Re]Verse Pitch Competition is a collaboration between the City of Austin, the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, Impact Hub Austin and the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service with additional support from a wide variety of community partners. Learn more at www.ReversePitch.org. The City of Austin plans to hold the contest again next year.

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