Rethink Recycling: How One Hack-a-thon is Driving Sustainable Innovation and Business Ventures in Cincinnati

Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, the City of Cincinnati is making waves in the realm of sustainable innovation through its groundbreaking annual hack-a-thon. With a forward-thinking city government at the helm, Cincinnati has harnessed the power of its thriving startup ecosystem to not only tackle the city’s most pressing sustainability challenges, but also catalyze a surge in new business ventures and investment opportunities. This ambitious endeavor is the result of a remarkable collaboration between the City Council, various city offices including the Office of Environment and Sustainability and the Office of Data and Performance Analytics, Cintrifuse, and local Fortune 500 companies. Drawing startup teams from various parts of the world, including Europe, Philadelphia, New York City, and Nebraska, Cincinnati has become a beacon of innovative collaboration, fostering an environment where bold ideas flourish. 

Councilmember Liz Keating, who spearheaded the hack-a-thon initiative, recognizes the abundant opportunities for innovation within the public sector. By forging synergies between government, corporate entities, and community goals, Cincinnati’s local government acts as a catalyst, igniting innovation throughout the region. Keating states, “I wanted to find more ways for the government to problem-solve with the startup ecosystem. There are so many opportunities for innovation within government, and our city can act as a lab to capitalize on those synergies and move the needle on involving the startup ecosystem in public interest.”

With the city’s unwavering commitment to collaboration, innovation, and sustainability, Cincinnati is poised to become a prominent innovation hub, putting the region on the map as a leading force in driving sustainable solutions and economic growth. As Todd Marty, Director of Sustainability at Coca-Cola Consolidated, rightly observes, “It takes all to create and sustain a circular economy. Cincinnati’s best-in-class innovation ecosystem takes us one step closer to achieving that.”

There are so many opportunities for innovation within government, and our city can act as a lab to capitalize on those synergies and move the needle on involving the startup ecosystem in public interest.

Recycling: A Hot-Bed for Innovation

This year’s hack-a-thon focused on recycling, which presented an innovation challenge encompassing various aspects of the supply chain, including chemical and material science, manufacturing, and post-consumer processing. The multifaceted recycling landscape generated a wealth of data and inspired collaboration between the City and 10 corporate stakeholders from diverse sectors, including Coca-Cola Consolidated, CVG Airport, Duke Energy Convention Center / OVG360, Fifth Third Bank, the Kroger Co., MadTree, Michelman, the Ohio Beverage Association, OI Glass, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Rumpke. The generosity and dedication of these partners made the hack-a-thon possible. 

The collective approach highlighted the technology-driven nature of recycling, which has been traditionally viewed as a consumer behavior issue, and showed how corporate and public parties can play pivotal roles in inspiring innovative solutions to shared problem sets. As the city propels forward on its mission, the collective expertise, resources, and determination of all stakeholders are vital to realizing a future where recycling is not just a local imperative, but a global endeavor. Bryan Becker, Vice President of Operations and Advanced Engineering at Michelman, emphasizes the collective effort, stating, “We are all in this together, and a stronger community of creative thinking drives us all forward.”

A Convergence of Startups Shaping a Sustainable Future

The challenges of recycling extend beyond Cincinnati’s borders, inspiring scalable business models with the potential for national and global implementation. TJ Jacobson, founder of Reunite, underscores the importance of a global mindset, noting, “It isn’t going to be just one company, one city, or even one state that helps solve the problems we are facing today but all of us working together.”

We saw this reflected in the 18 participating startups that spanned a wide range of specialties, from innovative solutions targeting consumer behavior to cutting-edge SaaS applications. As Richie Brees, founder of Onmiboom, reflects, “Even though our company and product doesn’t have an association with recycling and sustainability, we welcomed the opportunity to be immersed in new environments and be exposed to problems we don’t normally encounter. Regardless of the outcome, I feel there is always a benefit when we break out of our usual behaviors and adjust the way we think.” Entrepreneurs like Josh Mastromatto, founder of Rego, echoed this sentiment, expressing their constant pursuit of opportunities to make a significant impact on the communities they serve. That’s why, when they found the Rethink Recycling Hack-a-thon, their team “immediately knew this opportunity could skyrocket our impact.”

Among the impressive cohort of finalists in the hack-a-thon, a diverse range of startups have emerged with groundbreaking solutions poised to revolutionize the recycling landscape. Below is more on each pitch the hack-a-thon team heard. These finalists are paving the way for a more sustainable future in Cincinnati, and far beyond our city limits.

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Upland Road has developed a proven process that can separate a single waste stream into discrete, clean feedstocks, which can then be sold into existing supply chains or used to produce finished products on our SMART Center™ campus, made possible through their  SMART-UR™ Separation Systems.

Rego is an AI-powered bulk waste solution that connects resident items to local non-profits and manages the coordination, including pick-up and drop-off, while collecting and organizing the waste diversion data onto one simple dashboard that works for our business partners.

Radius marries the power of digital marketing with the power of location proximity and context through an app clip to educate consumers on recycling in their own, local grocery stores.

LPK developed an empowering communication and reward model for in-app/in-store purchases–educating you on the vessels of the products consumers buy.

PJ Smith reflected on his upbringing in Germany, showcasing how recycling centers (small & large) can be integrated into grocery stores, gas stations, and other consumer stations and how direct rewards could help remove the barrier of consumer behavior change.

EventMapStudio leveraged their sustainable event mapping solution to showcase how recycling and data collection can be unified with event planning.

ReUnite, a Nebraska-based startup, showcased their custom software that helps streamline how one-time collections, drop-offs, and finding end markets for recovered resources are managed. Their focus is on alternative items like electronics, appliances, batteries, organics, and anything else that can be diverted from the landfill locally. 

EcoPal is educating and alerting consumers on the dos and don’ts of recycling through a customized AI-powered ChatGBT module focused on local recycling practices, providing city residents with relevant information on their municipalities recycling standards.

Steve Means presented a waste diversion & measurement system to provide structure for an already complicated ecosystem. 

Omniboom created a custom app encouraging and engaging community members while also collecting data on recycled materials.

NovaChem PLC, is using Taman technology to break down hard-to-recycle items like calculators and styrofoam, making items more recyclable and easier to handle.

Connecting and catalyzing: The Hack-a-Thon’s Impact on Collaboration

The hack-a-thon served as more than just a platform for innovation; it was designed to lay the foundation for future collaborations between startups, corporate partners, and ecosystem support organizations. This forward-thinking approach ensured that the hack-a-thon extended beyond the pitch day, fostering lasting partnerships and driving the potential for future customers and pilot programs. Throughout the event, an impressive 28 connections were established between startups, corporate partners, and the city, facilitated through various avenues such as the flagship office hours program, the judging process, the pitch day itself, and organic networking opportunities. These connections serve as the foundation for continued investment in both capital resources and talent in our region’s startups.

Most remarkable was the willingness of corporate and City partners to engage with entities that might be perceived as competitors or operating outside their traditional spheres. This openness and collaboration are essential for building a circular economy and establishing Cincinnati as an innovation hub. As Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cintrifuse, affirms, “Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem is nimble and energetic. Our corporate partners are powerhouses championing innovation, inside their doors and out. When paired together, this collaboration is Cincinnati’s superpower and is changing the game.”  

The collaborative mindset of the city and its embrace of innovation and partnerships with private entities, as highlighted by Councilmember Liz Keating, have been key drivers in the exponential growth and impact of the hack-a-thon over just two years. Upland Road emphasizes the value of these conversations and connections, which not only advanced their own efforts but also “demonstrated Cincinnati’s strong sense of community and shared goal of waste elimination and improved recycling”.

The spirit of collaboration extends beyond the hack-a-thon, resonating within Cincinnati’s community of thinkers and doers. Colleen McSwiggin, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Reuse and Recycling Hub, highlights the city’s lack of territoriality, stating, “We have a lot of amazing thinkers and doers in Cincinnati, and we’re not territorial. When private dollars can back policies/ideas from public institutions, it helps to get things done.”

Cincinnati's startup ecosystem is nimble and energetic. Our corporate partners are powerhouses championing innovation, inside their doors and out. When paired together, this collaboration is Cincinnati's superpower and is changing the game.

Nurturing Growth and Cultivating Entrepreneurship: The Next Chapter for Hack-a-Thon Participants

Following the momentum created by the hack, Cintrifuse, in collaboration with Alloy Development Co., Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub, and the University of Cincinnati, has curated an incubation period that extends beyond the hack-a-thon itself. This program, tailored to the needs of the semi-finalists and finalists of the hack-a-thon, serves as a launchpad for their entrepreneurial journey. Participating startups will gain access to a comprehensive suite of resources, including personalized growth plans, mentorship, coaching, coworking spaces, prototyping facilities, and a specialized bootcamp. Moreover, they will have the opportunity to apply to accelerator programs dedicated to supporting sustainable scaling. The program’s ultimate goal is to fast-track startups towards customer acquisition and forge valuable corporate partnerships.

Over half of the startups that participated in the hack-a-thon are now embarking on this path, leveraging these resources to refine their new business applications in the hopes of fast-tracking customer acquisition and venture capital investment. As Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cintrifuse, highlights, this support ecosystem “fosters a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, yielding long-term benefits for the region. These startups, ready for pilot programs and venture scaling in less than a year, not only generate job opportunities and economic growth but also attract other businesses and investors to the area. Their impact extends far beyond their individual ventures, inspiring innovation in other industries and positioning Cincinnati as a thriving hub for entrepreneurship.”

Mastromatto encapsulates the spirit of Cincinnati’s innovation ecosystem, emphasizing its rapid growth and the dedication of both seasoned professionals and up-and-coming entrepreneurs to drive systemic change. “The infectious energy and determination of the community radiate the message that regardless of the challenges they face, they will make it happen. It is this collective drive and collaborative spirit that sets Cincinnati apart and positions it as a frontrunner in fostering a vibrant entrepreneurial landscape.”

As the hack-a-thon participants transition into the incubation period and continue their journey towards success, Cincinnati’s innovation ecosystem remains committed to their growth, offering unwavering support, resources, and a network of connections. Through this sustained investment in their development and the continuation of the hack-a-thon initiative, the startups will not only flourish but also contribute to the ongoing evolution of Cincinnati as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, paving the way for a prosperous and innovative future. 

By embracing collaboration and harnessing the power of technology, Cincinnati is positioning itself as a catalyst for change, fostering an environment where creative thinking and shared responsibility drive the advancement of sustainable practices.

The infectious energy and determination of the community radiate the message that regardless of the challenges they face, they will make it happen. It is this collective drive and collaborative spirit that sets Cincinnati apart and positions it as a frontrunner in fostering a vibrant entrepreneurial landscape.