Founded by Peter Hedley and Victor Dewulf, Recycleye has a founding story that sounds so clichéd it’s hard to believe it is true. But its parents’ garage origin story belies a world-changing product that has attracted significant funding and the interest of major partners.
Starting with £1.2 million from a funding round led by MMC Venture and Playfair Capital as well as grants from Innovate UK and the EU, Recycleye has developed its innovative technology to a position where the product is ready to transform waste management industry. Recycling is not just a matter of being environmentally aware; the purity of recycling is vital, and, until Recycleye, the task was almost entirely manual.
Changing the world from his parents’ garage
Hedley and Dewulf first met at university and, after following different career paths for a few years came together to start Recycleye. Dewulf, was starting a PhD in computer vision and recognised the potential application in the waste industry. Their vision was to create a system that could identify and sort individual materials in waste streams. Recycling is, largely, categorised by its purity. Mixed waste has, unsurprisingly, no value. But when waste streams have purer concentrations of recyclable material it increases in value, the purer the recycling the more value it has. This reflects the recycling processes, plastics that are contaminated with other substances, or even other types of plastic, cannot be recycled to the same high grade.
However, assessing purity was manual, and required auditing samples from the streams. Which themselves can only be sorted manually. An undesirable job which sees significant turnover, half of all staff last less than six months. Those that stay face dull and dirty work that is accompanied by a host of occupational hazards.
To emulate this for their Recycleye robot, however, Hedley and Dewulf created a waste processing station in Hedley’s parents’ garage. Driving around the streets of Poole to collect household waste for a conveyor made from a cheap treadmill they purchased from eBay and ran it over the treadmill to refine their product.
Significant development partnerships
Despite the less than glamorous testing situation, the pair had some significant partnerships in place. As well as conducting paid pilots with the waste industry, they have partnered with their old university — Imperial College — as well as Microsoft and Netherland’s Delft University to develop their AI and machine learning.
One of the benefits has been Recycleye’s rapid development. Peter Hedley, one of the founders, explained, “there’s always been a lag, where it takes some time for the industry to pick up on the latest improvement in academia. Through our partnership with Imperial, we are closing that gap, and have the newest capabilities and systems within our pipeline.”
The system’s AI identifies waste types, even down to brand, from the moving conveyor, allowing operators to have constant data on the purity of the streams. This allows Recycleye’s camera to collect and analyse images and know exactly what is being processed. Recycleye now owns an exclusive library of over 2 million images from their machine learning and training.
A serious business
The waste industry is large, the global waste management market is over $2 trillion a year and expected to grow. There have been increasing challenges for western countries, not just from the pressures created by growing environmental concern, but, since China has stopped importing waste from elsewhere the capacity to manage waste in the West is limited, resulting in low recycling rates.
Recycleye has been making inroads into this market by developing partnerships with waste providers to trial their robot and software. The challenges of Covid-19 even helped with their pilots: the difficulties in accessing their machines forced them to rely heavily on remote management, one of Recycleye’s core features.
Next funding round coming later this year
With a team of 14 technologists and creatives, and having moved on from an eBay treadmill, Hedley and Dewulf see their next step as developing their commercial and operational capacity to bring the product to market, and they are considering a funding round later this year to start that process. Hedley said, “we are at the stage where we have a market-ready product. We have ten customers and are getting new orders, so can see the client demand. So now we’ve got that, how do we scale it?”
Their initial goals are to focus on capturing as much of the European market as possible. First with the sale of their robot and, then, with ongoing remote support and updates through their licensing. Given their ‘competition’ is an ongoing headache of staff recruitment for jobs that no one really wants to be punctuated with tedious manual waste audits, it appears they may have written another story in which a garage startup changes the world.