Let's do launch: 3 startups leading in circular economy innovation

Saasha Celestial, co-founder of OLIO, presenting at the LAUNCH Forum
LAUNCH Circular Forum
Saasha Celestial, co-founder of OLIO, presenting at the LAUNCH Circular Forum in Arkansas.

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

A circular solution is only as good as its implementation, and customer engagement is a tough nut to crack. I’m writing this week from the LAUNCH Circular Forum in Bentonville, Arkansas, having spent the week with nine innovators tackling this issue head-on, focusing on engaging customers and unlocking new business models for a circular society. Despite the fairly universal challenge of changing human behavior, I’m left feeling encouraged and heartened by their progress.

Part-incubator, part-accelerator and part pitch-fest, the two-day forum brought together a council of 30 industry leaders to provide feedback, advice and connections to the innovators as a part of LAUNCH’s 18-month program. LAUNCH engages members — including representatives from core partner companies IKEA, eBay, VF Corporation and Kvadrat — in each piece of the process from challenge framing and application review to advising the startups on their journey to scale.

With the aim of accelerating innovations to market and creating entrepreneurial ecosystems for the circular economy, LAUNCH recognizes that systems-level change requires diverse groups of stakeholders to build trust and long-term collaboration. "By bringing people together across functions, industries and groups, in an intimate format, it helps you solve for the circular economy with unlikely partners," said Faith Legendre, circular economy solutions strategist at Cisco Systems, and one of my fellow councilmembers.

Since its inception, LAUNCH has run 14 innovation cycles, nine of which have focused on the circular economy, including challenges on design and manufacturing; closed-loop solutions and recycling technologies; smarter chemistry; new types of materials; and green chemistry.

This year’s innovators ranged in scale, stage and scope, from frictionless clothing buy-back in the United Kingdom to incentivized recycling in Nigeria. (I encourage you to read about all nine startups here).

Here are three companies with innovative approaches to customer engagement that stood out:

OLIO: In the United States alone, we throw away 63 million tons of food annually, 85 percent of which occurs in businesses and homes. OLIO’s free, local food-sharing app connects neighbors with one another and with local stores so that surplus food easily can be shared instead of thrown away.

The app functions like a more user-friendly version of Craigslist: Users take a photo of their food on the app — anything from tonight’s leftovers to a basket of home-grown tomatoes to half a container of whatever’s in the fridge — and neighbors can request the items, all in real time. But the app isn’t just for individuals. OLIO volunteers also work with local retailers to collect and redistribute unsold food that otherwise would end up wasted. While a number of other startups are working to eliminate post-consumer food waste, this company seems to have figured out how to simplify the process of sharing the otherwise unshareable.

Library of Things startup
LAUNCH Circular Forum
The London-based user-friendly item rental startup called "Library of Things," run by Emma Shaw, Sophia Wyatt and Rebecca Trevalyan.

Library of Things: "Why buy when you can borrow?" asks Rebecca Trevalyan, co-founder of the United Kingdom-based startup, which rents drills, lawn mowers, carpet cleaners, projectors and other items that most people use only rarely. It’s a simple concept: rent items from a local self-serve kiosk and pay less than 10 percent of what you’d pay to buy them.

Library of Things also aims to cultivate community through do-it-yourself events and workshops, particularly given that 80 percent of users live within one mile of the Library’s pilot location, and 40 percent live just around the corner. The rental service also includes user instructions and peer reviews, and offers feedback to brands on product failures. While Library of Things is one location in London, it offers an enticing model that would make borrowing a no-brainer for many.

Deemly: The primary currency in the sharing economy is trust, but 69 percent of users worry about using sharing platforms, and the number of scams has tripled in the last year, according to Deemly co-founder Sara Green Brodersen.

To enable trust and transparency in the sharing economy, Deemly aggregates user reviews and ratings across sharing platforms such as Airbnb, Lyft and eBay to create a robust user profile.

"At the heart of building a circular society is fulfilling human needs," Kristin Coates, executive director of LAUNCH, told me. "That starts with building trust, rethinking the way we own things, understanding where our stuff is coming from and building experiences around the things that we own and use."