So I haven’t posted in three and a half years. Time for an updated I think. This post is basically a recap from the start plus catching up all three of my readers (hi mom) to today.
Back in 2009 I set out to solve an extraordinarily large, yet hidden problem: the dumping of sludge, hazardous industrial waste, plastics, and municipal solid waste. Individual Chinese cities each produce 2,000 tons or more PER DAY of sludge (see PDF: Ningbo Sludge Data 宁波市危险废物与污泥处理处置规划). More than 65 million tons of sludge are produced in China every year, 80% of which is dumped into the environment, causing considerable pollution which is very difficult to clean up (much more so than air or water pollution). Clearly China is our key market but I wanted to develop a product which could be deployed, and maintained, in any developing market. Especially in remote areas where we can reach the base of the pyramid and make the largest marginal difference.
It didn’t matter to me what technology was used, no one cares about the technology. What matters is how well you solve the customer’s problem. I started out with landfill gas to energy, moved to the other extreme with plasma gasification, found reasonable middle ground with conventional pyrolysis, then discovered microwave pyrolysis around early 2012. At that time microwave pyrolysis only existed in the laboratories of a few leading universities though it was clear the technology overcame the design and process limitations of other solutions. It was faster than biological processes, more manageable and cheaper than plasma gasification, more energy efficient than conventional pyrolysis, and produced higher quality products than them all. The tech just needed to be fully developed, turned into a product, then commercialized. That’s all.
I launched Xingergy, an early version of the startup, in Hong Kong around 2011, recruiting a senior professor from HKUST as technical director plus two physics students from HKU and CHUK to help me out. Although the physics students were quite smart it was clear I’d be the one designing and building our first prototype. Alex was more likely to drill a hole in himself than the prototype. The prototype’s design was based on a paper from Cambridge University whose authors eventually founded Enval, possibly the first microwave pyrolysis startup.
I want to point out that Xingergy was pitching microwave plasma gasification, a large high energy technology. Though because this technology was too complex and expensive for us to build, we had to settle for microwave pyrolysis. It didn’t really occur to me at the time but this was a sign I should probably be focusing on the small cheap tech. Being a guy, it took me a while to realize the big cool sounding tech wasn’t the most viable option.
One thing we learned was that scientific supply companies are NOT friendly to startups. We also learned we couldn’t afford analytical testing of the results. Our most important lesson learned: the path forward led me out of Hong Kong. I realized I couldn’t get it done in Hong Kong, so in September 2013 I wrote this:
Now it is time to readjust, move somewhere else, get a technical degree, meet new people. Build a better foundation, try again.
It took me nearly four years, but I did. Since writing that post I:
- Moved to Ningbo, China
- Earned a degree in Environmental Science from The University of Nottingham (a leading uni in microwave pyrolysis technology), final dissertation, “Technical and Economic Feasibility of a Novel Microwave Pyrolysis Technology for use in Waste Treatment”
- Met Dr. Kaiqi Shi, who was completing his PhD in microwave pyrolysis
- Teamed up with Kaiqi to launch Innov8tia along with Tracy and Jessica
At Nottingham I spent three years absorbing as much knowledge as possible about natural environmental systems, anthropogenic effects on our planet, waste management, biological and thermo-chemical treatment technologies, and more. I became a dirt, water, and air scientist. All while running a wholesale frozen meat trading business on the side and developing Innov8tia.
Around 2015 we started talking to sludge producing companies and governments to understand the market. This was very difficult as the Chinese companies who produce sludge are almost certainly dumping it, so they preferred not to communicate with us and pretend there wasn’t any problem at all. The governments were much more helpful, at some points they almost seemed desperate for a solution. Winter 2016 we started pitching to VCs, quickly realizing none of them had any interest or knew anything about sludge, environmental problems, or engineering startups in general. Sometimes there is a disconnect between the big problems governments want to solve and the startups seed investors are interested in.
We were admitted to the Yinzhou National High Tech Incubator which is located across the street from Nottingham. They provided us with a 200 square meter private (unfinished) office/lab. It would have been great except the incubator only provided the empty office, no other support such as connecting us to investors. So that didn’t work out.
The incubator park held a funding competition with the winner getting around 200,000 RMB. Many SMEs competed, but the results were never released. It turns out (via my insider connections) that the incubator awarded the money to some large company who wasn’t really interested and didn’t accept the prize. Another example of the culture of preferring “famous companies” and such to actual startups. Clearly we were not going to succeed in this environment.
Tracy and myself at her apartment nearby USC just before MEPC
Finals, Spring 2017. I slept on an inflatable mattress in the living room.
So we moved the startup to the US during fall 2016. We applied and were accepted into the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, LACI, often considered one of the top incubators in the world. Tracy and I honed our pitch down to the second with Churchill levels of preparation (drove her roommate crazy), then went out and won a few competitions including:
The Laudato si’ Challenge (Rome Accelerator, we’re not allowed to say it’s associated with a certain person whose title rhymes with “rope”, but his photo is on the homepage).
“Fellowship Stage” – still in competition for the finals, $100,000 + accelerator program.
Kunshan Innovation & Entrepreneurship Competition “World Finals” – 首届中国昆山创新创业大赛
Currently in the finals. I have to leave my good friend’s wedding early to fly to Kunshan (suburb of Shanghai) for this, so I hope we do well. We initially competed in the LA regional competition.
University Southern California Viterbi Engineering School MEPC business competition
3rd place – $10,000 in legal services.
Carnegie Mellon University China-US Technology Summit
“Gold Award, basically 3rd place” – They were supposed to mail our check and prize, supposedly it’s in the mail. CMU Summit Article Innov8tia April 2017
Entrepreneurship in Shanghai International Innovation Entrepreneurship Competition / 创业在上海”国际创新创业大赛——国际赛专场
Supposedly won the top prize of 200,000 RMB + incubator services, but haven’t yet been told how/when this is awarded. Like Kunshan, we initially competed in the LA regional competition.
(sometimes WordPress disagrees with your formatting ideas)
Tracy and myself at the CMU China-US Tech Summit Finals, Pittsburgh
While all this was happening Kaiqi was back at Nottingham’s Clean Energy Conversion Technologies Lab completing our crown jewel, the 500kg/day continuous process reactor. Every investor and customer we spoke with previously said we were “too early” and asked to see the commercial system before discussions could continue. This would be fine for an app or consumer hardware startup out of Shenzhen, but when the components of your system cost $200,000 it’s kind of tough for a bootstrapped startup. Luckily we have Nottingham and their funding.