By Kieran Sullivan
Conducting business in a carbon-constrained world is a challenging area, but one that presents enormous potential and opportunities if you know where to look. This was one of the main messages that I took away from my recent foray into the entrepreneurial scene as part of The Journey, a three-week summer school run by Climate KIC (Knowledge Innovation Centre) and EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology). It is impossible to fit 3 weeks of a fairly intense learning experience into a single blog post so bear with me if I gloss over some details. I’ll just draw out some highlights in this post, and put out a some more posts over the next few weeks with detail on the more interesting and/or useful sessions. In short, The Journey didn’t disappoint.
At Melbourne Airport, I met up with the five other postgrad students from Victorian universities who were lucky enough to get a spot on The Journey. While we started the trip as relative strangers, it is amazing how 24 hours of travel can bond a group. Half the group peeled off in Dubai to join Journey 2 in Budapest, while three of us continued onwards towards Cyprus and Journey 1. The first few days consisted mostly of trying to learn (and pronounce) 37 names, remember backgrounds, and figure out who would be a good team mate. All this while battling jetlag, heat approaching 40 degrees C, and for some people, hangovers from the night before. By Tuesday of the first week (i.e. Day 4), as a group we had developed a list of 50 ‘challenges’ that our start-up ideas should address, and had begun to form teams. This might sound like an easy task, but for me it was actually one of the more difficult parts of the entire program – every challenge was worth exploring, I was happy to work with any of the participants, and everyone was pitching multiple different ideas. In the end, I coalesced with a very diverse team and, after thinking about a few different challenges, we agreed that we’d explore the challenge of reducing emissions within the food supply chain…. Simple, right?
One of the main lessons that came out of this process was that it isn’t so much the problem that you choose to address, but is often more about the team. I was fortunate enough to end up in a team consisting of a sustainability consultant and beekeeper from Germany, a Brazilian turned German studying a Master of Sustainable Resource Management, an architecture student from the Canary Islands studying in the Netherlands, a Spanish biologist working in Mozambique, and me, a process engineer turned energy and sustainability researcher. People like to say that diversity is needed for innovation, and I think we managed to put together a pretty diverse team.
We were all very keen to get to work on solving all of the world’s problems, but our coaches had different ideas. We first had to define the problems we were looking to solve. It seems obvious, but in reality, it is easy to miss this part. I found it especially challenging - the engineering part of my brain jumps to solutions very quickly and from there to figuring out the practicalities of the design, so learning to thoroughly define a problem for a day and a half was frustrating to say the least. However, in hindsight, it was instrumental in getting us to deliver a solution that addressed one of the problems – without that frustrating process of iteration and ideation, our project would have had much less impact. We identified that food waste is a major contributor to GHG emissions, as well as being a major inefficiency in the food production/and consumption system. Apart from municipal organic waste collection (which doesn’t take place everywhere) or self-directed composting (which can be complicated, needs space, and can be pretty disgusting if it isn’t done right), there aren’t many suitable solutions available at the household level. This is where we decided to focus our efforts and attempt to find a solution.
Over the next two weeks, we conducted interviews with potential customers, did market research of our competitors, researched beachhead markets, calculated the climate impact of our product, did some financial calculations, and tweaked our focus almost daily. It was exhausting but invigorating. The solution we ended up presenting in the final pitch in Sofia, Bulgaria was humoo - an innovative, stylish, and fully-automated countertop device that makes home composting fast, clean and simple. We found that each humoo sold can directly reduce a household’s carbon footprint by an average of 310kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, whilst delivering a range of secondary benefits (e.g. closing nutrient cycles, creating compost, education about food waste, etc). While we only had the time to develop a concept design during The Journey, we plan to build prototypes to prove and further optimise our design, and perhaps even file for patent sometime in the future. There is a surprising amount of interest in this project, and we have even received six expressions of interest in pre-pre-ordering the product. We were able to achieve an enormous amount of work in two weeks, which is a testament to the process of The Journey, our coaches Bram and Danielle, and the humoo team. Stay tuned for more exciting developments and blog posts as the project develops further.
Special thanks to the Victorian Government, EU Centre for Shared Complex Challenges, and Climate KIC Australia for arranging and funding my travel and that of the five other Victorian Postgraduate students to participate in the Journey.