students and industry partnering for the planet: when waste leads to good business

industry partnering

Experiential education has long been a key tool to teach entrepreneurship: there is no better way to understand and face the challenges of launching a startup or working for cutting-edge businesses than to actually do it. For students interested in sustainable design and environmental issues, the need for real-world experience is even more acute, thanks to the relentless pace of change and the pressing need for innovations to solve global challenges. Universities, recognizing this, are taking action. In recent years, many have launched programs that draw on partnerships with industry to put students on the front lines of emerging technologies and to give them the opportunity to learn by doing. 

Examples of innovative collaborations took center stage at a recent virtualOPEN conference session on supporting sustainable design and addressing environmental issues. Attendees heard from Crystal Leach, director of Industry Collaboration at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute (NMI); Faculty Grants recipient, Chad Kennedy, a lecturer in the technology, entrepreneurship, and management program at The Polytechnic School at Arizona State University (ASU); and Faculty Grants recipient, Volker Sick, director of the Global CO2 initiative and an engineering professor at the University of Michigan (UM) Ann Arbor. 

“These faculty and institutions are providing hands-on, real-world experiences to their students,” noted Cindy Gilbert, Senior Program Officer at VentureWell, who oversees higher education initiatives and facilitated the session. “Clearly, they are seeing the writing on the wall. We no longer have the luxury of passing the burden of sustainability ‘down the road’ to the next generation. Schools are starting to figure out how to cultivate the experiences and partnerships needed to give their students a professional leg up.”

Driving that need for university-industry partnerships, the speakers noted, are the size, complexity, and evolving nature of today’s environmental threats. “Quite honestly,” noted NMI’s Leach, “academic institutions have been challenged in their ability to address issues like this at the breadth and depth of the scale that can make a measurable difference in our economy.”

partnering to transform the plastics problem

Consider the pervasive global challenge of plastic in the environment. Leach noted that her colleague and NMI co-founder Jenna Jambeck recently published the landmark study showing that, since the 1950s, society has produced some 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, of which only 9 percent has been recycled. The rest ended up in the environment as waste. “That’s a really big problem,” she said, “and the only way you can really look at that problem is to take a holistic approach.” NMI was launched in 2017 with that goal in mind, partnering with industry to redesign products—with a focus on developing materials with an improved end-of-life—and to bring greater circularity to waste management practices.

Given the multifaceted nature of the plastics issue, building relationships with many stakeholders was key, says Leach, noting that NMI now has over 40 partners—in government, consumer goods, packaging, medical products, raw materials suppliers, and the nonprofit sector—and has received more than $15 million in funding. “We specifically put together a strategic framework around partnering from the very beginning,” she explained.

In addition to supporting academic research that could lead to the development of more-sustainable raw materials and more-efficient waste management systems, NMI works with industry partners to provide internships and other real-world experience to the next generation of scientists and engineers. “The best way to change the future is through our students,” Leach said. “We’re going to make the biggest impact and difference on this global issue of plastic pollution by making sure that the next generation thinks about it differently and solves for it differently.”

The group is already beginning to see an impact in that area. Leach noted that an institute graduate student recently spun out a technology startup that helps consumers determine if an item can be recycled, using artificial intelligence, GIS technology, and social media to give a real time, location-specific answer. “We’re influencing our students,” Leach says, “and the thing we’re excited about is that we’re actually starting to impact our economy through new jobs.”

helping businesses rethink waste

While Leach and NMI are focused on solutions at a global scale, Kennedy is reaching out to the little guy. “Small startups or small companies don’t really have a lot of bandwidth to be thinking about all the recycling procedures or materials,” he told the conference audience. “They don’t really have many good guides on how to do that.” Kennedy’s solution is a program called MashFlow, a series of equations that help small companies measure and track their waste stream and then save resources by identifying where unused materials could be put to new uses.

Easier and less expensive than the life cycle assessment methods employed by large companies, MashFlow is being implemented by ASU startups “particularly if they have a sustainable track where they want to measure progress,” Kennedy said.

“The production lifecycle of old is out—where we bring materials in, we produce products and goods, we distribute, our customers use them, and then we’d throw them away,” he explained. “Since the Cradle to Cradle rage has really taken off,” he added, referring to the circular economy approach popularized by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, “there really is no throwing anything away. We’re understanding that now.”

MashFlow looks at a business’s production system and provides a metric for tracking inputs using the mass of the materials. By quantifying and putting a value on waste, the program shows companies how efficiencies can bring financial benefits. That information, in turn, can change how they do business, Kennedy said. “Maybe they want to build some products, and normally they would think, ‘We have to dispose of this amount of material.’ Instead, they might think, ‘Can we turn that [material] into something?’ They begin to see the direct economic benefit of doing it.”

For one of Kennedy’s ASU entrepreneurial students, who was looking to expand his family’s air conditioning business, using MashFlow had just such an impact. “They had a huge waste of ductwork that they paid waste management to haul off to landfills,” Kennedy explained. Seeing the cost of that process—hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—the team came up with a device that allowed the company to reuse the materials. “We ended up turning that into a whole other business,” Kennedy reported. “Competitors would pay them to haul off the used ductwork at a reduced price, they processed the waste into sellable products and then resold it. They’d found a way to turn something that was a waste into a product and disrupted the normal waste chain to make multiple streams of revenue.”

Michigan’s global CO2 initiative

Transforming industrial waste into new products also happens to be the central mission of TechLab: Climate Change, a new transdisciplinary program at the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, where students partner with industry innovators who are working to turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into sustainable feedstock for concrete, carbon fiber, fuels, and other carbon-based materials. The program is part of UM’s growing suite of TechLab fellowship programs, which offer students real-world experience working to solve large societal problems with “companies-in-residence” in fields such as autonomous automobiles and, coming next year, healthcare and defense.

“Student teams are working with startup companies in a selected technology space, and that gives them an unparalleled experiential learning opportunity to be knee deep into the development and growth period of these companies,” explained Sick. “It’s just a groundbreaking experience for many of the students. In return, the startups, being fully integrated in this educational process, receive access to test facilities and research opportunities.”

TechLab: Climate Change’s current companies-in-residence include LanzaTech, a carbon recycling company that uses microbes to transform waste exhaust from steel mills into ethanol, and SkyBaron, a collaborative platform, marketplace, and brand for products made with captured and recycled carbon. “Our student teams work with LanzaTech to broaden the portfolio of sources so that they can work with other plants, not just steel mills, and also look at the regulatory enablers or inhibitors that would allow the company to grow,” Sick explained. SkyBaron, based in New York, markets consumer products made from recaptured carbon, he continued, “and our students are currently looking at designing new products, sourcing the materials, and identifying manufacturing capabilities.” Any materials that need testing can be evaluated at the university’s laboratories, he added, benefitting SkyBaron in return.

By providing students with experiential opportunities to see firsthand how innovation can take on environmental challenges, these university programs blend the best of both theory and practice. And by forging productive alliances between academia and industry, they bring the goal of a more sustainable society that much closer.


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