Tackling social challenges with tech

The Startup in Residence programme aims to connect startups and scale-ups with key social challenges. Founded in Amsterdam in 2015, the programme invites Dutch and international entrepreneurs to solve these issues while collaborating with a mentor and the local government, with the aim of having a positive impact on the city and its residents.

Under the 2019 theme of sustainability, the city came up with 18 related challenges covering a variety of topics, including waste recycling, new energy sources and climate-proofing.

While aiming to help young companies excel, the programme also seeks to infuse the city administration with aspects of startup culture, making it more agile, open and innovative so it can successfully pursue more ambitious projects in the future.

Collaboration in action

"Innovation will not come from a startup alone. Neither will it come from the government either, or a corporate. It will come from a collective effort," said Frank Tazelaar, the City of Amsterdam’s head of sustainability, while speaking at the ‘Grand Final Startup in Residence Sustainability’ event on 28 November.

The 10 startups selected for participation are notable for their sheer variety and include sustainable food retailer Farmed Today and Roof Global, the creators of clean and sustainable (and colourful!) construction material.

Two startups were directly inspired by the city’s watery landscape: RanMarine, which makes the WasteShark®, the world’s first aquadrone which cleans and monitors waterways, and Vektoro, which has an energy-generating prototype that aims to turn Amsterdam’s canal system into a power station.

Meanwhile, the circular design studio E-waste Arcades showcased various gamification approaches designed to make recycling fun for the upcoming Sail 2020 event. Tech company SKIAlabs showed how they are applying machine learning to streamline waste collection. And Circular IQ revealed how their software platform will help Amsterdam reach its ambitious goal of having 50% of its supplies be circular by 2025.

Helping trees in need

One of the finalists, Boombrix, addresses ‘trees in need’ with an underground IoT device. Using soil moisture information and real-time data on the condition of trees, along with an algorithm, it determines which ones are at greater risk during droughts.

The company is currently finalising a pilot report for the municipality. “Basically, what we took away was that Amsterdam’s trees are also vulnerable because of localised factors such as soil types or level of compaction,” says cofounder Noelle Teh. “And since any efforts to monitor trees must consider these local factors, we now hope to grow our project and collaborate more with tree specialists, ecologists and data scientists.”

“We’re also keen on partnering with companies who already do environmental monitoring and sensing. In fact, if you love trees and can see [yourself] being a part of our project, then please do contact us via our LinkedIn!”

Pee = drinking water + fertilizer

Access to clean drinking water and hygienic sanitary facilities is a major global challenge. Applying European Space Agency technology, SEMiLLA Sanitation has developed a closed loop system to transform waste water into drinking water and fertiliser – a solution equally applicable to humanitarian aid and Smart Cities.

“SIRA was an amazing opportunity,” says managing partner Peter Scheer. “What great support. What a great team. Together with the courses I followed, I could optimise my strategy and my business plan.”

On the technical side, the company was able to test treating the effluence from various city GreenPees – urinals disguised as plant containers that are placed in nightlife areas. “Our 700-litre installation successfully produced 70 litres of great fertilizer and 630 litres of water for reuse.”

The company’s next step is to build and operate an installation to treat 10,000 litres a week. “So, if anyone knows an investor or a company who can market the fertiliser, do reach out.”

Some serious coin

ECO coins are a way to track, measure and reward sustainability. “As part of the pilot, the ECO coin was used by the city of Amsterdam to encourage staff to act more sustainably,” according to cofounder Lewis Just.

“Staff can bike to work, eat a meat-free meal or recycle plastic to earn ECO coins. And within the first month, all these sustainable actions amounted to more than twelve tons of CO2 reduction – that’s the same as taking 90 flights from Amsterdam to Paris.”

Participants could spend their ECO coins on limited edition Tony’s Chocolonely candy bars, seed bombs or online magazine subscriptions. “They were also able to donate their ECO coins to a tree planting charity. This was the first time ECO coins could be donated and it was a very popular option, so we will continue to offer this going forward.”

Currently, the company is focused on scaling the project across local city government – and hopefully throughout Amsterdam. “So, we are seeking more collaborations with corporates, charities and communities. If you are interested in learning more, you can drop us a line.”

Keep an eye on the Startup in Residence website, as applications will be opening up again in early 2020.

Read more startup and business news from around Amsterdam.