By James Kung
The numerous types of visually identical but chemically different plastics in waste must be separated and recycled separately. The high capital cost of existing automatic sorting machines means that most companies and municipalities around the world sort plastic waste manually, meaning that most plastic is not recycled but is instead incinerated or dumped on land or at sea. We have developed a low-cost plastics identification device which will enable operators to quickly and conveniently identify different types of plastics, thus enabling plastic sorting and recycling in developing countries.
The idea was inspired by Martin’s visit to a waste processing facility in Bratislava, Slovakia two years ago. He was struck by how, despite being an EU member state and a relatively well-developed country, their plastic sorting process consisted solely of manual labourers taking out plastic bottles and incinerating the remainder. Martin was thus inspired to create a solution that would enable efficient plastics sorting and recycling for everyone around the world.
The team originally comprised the two chemists, Martin and Hans, as well as two others, and was formed to compete in Imperial’s FoNS-MAD competition, an innovation competition run by the Faculty of Natural Sciences. After being selected to compete at the finals of the competition, they realised that changes to their idea required physics and data analysis skills, so another physicist and I were brought on to replace the other two members. The second physicist left the group in October 2018 due to other commitments, leaving the team as it is now.
We have a few advisors currently helping advance Matoha: Alexander Krisko is a Slovakian entrepreneur whom Martin worked with as part of a previous start-up. He has given us valuable advice and support since the founding of the team; Janet Murray has been our business coach since we met her as part of the Venture Catalyst Challenge in February 2018. Her knowledge and experience has been crucial in helping; and Vincent Gilles and Nicky Chambers mentor us through the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service. They bring to the table valuable insight into the recycling industry and a willingness to challenge and push us on every aspect of our business.
Ever since we discovered the Enterprise Lab in February as part of VCC, we have used it regularly for work, meetings, and various other things like filming video pitches. The various workshops we’ve attended, whether as part of VCC or otherwise, have been informative and thought-provoking. The sheer number of things on offer, whether coaching or networking events or competitions, make the Enterprise Lab one of the best places at Imperial for any startup.
Our startup is currently at pre-seed stage; we have developed a sixth-generation prototype but have yet to secure production agreements for large-scale manufacture. We are currently working on new iterations of the device, and are exploring other uses of our technology and expertise, for example in industry.
Our first big success was winning our first competition, FoNS-MAD in October 2017. As the first competition we had entered, winning showed us that our idea has potential, and the prize money gave us incentive to continue working. Our second big success was our trip to Indonesia in September 2018, where we verified technical and infrastructural assumptions, spoke to charities and government ministers, and delivered our first device to a paying customer for testing. Our third big success was coming third in the UK Finals of ClimateLaunchpad, one of the world’s largest green business ideas competitions. Representing the UK at the global Grand Finals in Edinburgh was an eye-opening and inspiring experience.
What we’ve found most challenging is maintaining a good balance between device functionality and price. In an age where most recycling is still unprofitable, many we have spoken to are highly sceptical of introducing new machines into existing systems due to cost yet desire high performance and quality when discussing potentially using our devices.
One of the things that came out of our trip to Indonesia was that while we had taken steps to protect the device against heat, humidity and other factors, it became quite evident that we would have to completely redesign the internal structure and physical form of our device to truly make it shockproof and waterproof. Lastly (and this relates somewhat to the first point), we’ve considered making various products for consumers, however few of these ideas have been truly successful because incentivising consumer recycling is extremely difficult, mainly due to the extremely limited possible financial motivation. Hopefully with changing education and public perception this will improve.
Our advice would be that entrepreneurship is a lot less glamorous than it sounds – some would say it boils down to about 90% failure and 10% success. Learning from setbacks and constantly building on knowledge gained is what makes a business move forward.