The Cleanup Collective: Solving a City-Wide Problem with Community-focused Innovation

Lucas Williamson, the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Product Refinery, has always had a knack for taking an idea or need and making it into something functional, tangible, and beautifully designed. This knack led him to get an early start at serial entrepreneurship, and by 18, Lucas had already started a business making custom sports gear and headgear for his wrestling team. Not long after, while studying Industrial Design in college, he launched his first product on Kickstarter. Flash forward to 2019, when Lucas founded Product Refinery, an industrial design startup that provides creators, inventors, and businesses the essential services they need to design, make, market, and ship their ideas into the global market. The rest, as they say, is history. 

In April of 2022, Lucas and the Product Refinery team joined the first annual Rethink Hack-a-thon, innovating around one of the City of Cincinnati’s most prominent problems: litter. This first-ever city-wide hack-a-thon brought experts, innovators, big corporations, and community leaders from a variety of different backgrounds together to solve a hard-to-crack problem over the course of three days. The hack saw an outstanding 18 teams participate, spanning from grassroots groups, city government, startups, concerned citizens, high schools, extracurricular clubs, large universities, and community colleges, and ranging in ages from 13-80, all with a goal of not only to connecting and catalyzing the city but to producing actionable, effective solutions that the City could implement to help turn the tide of litter in Cincinnati. 

When asked why he chose to participate in the hack-a-thon, Lucas said, “the team at Product Refinery went into the Rethink Litter Hack-a-thon with the intention of connecting with the community and Cintrifuse ecosystem. We thought that, with our team of industrial designers, surely we can come up with something that could help Cincinnati address the litter problem. We took it on as a fun challenge with our team to test our metal around product innovation.” 

And they did just that. From this hack-a-thon emerged the Cleanup Collective, a waste management startup that empowers communities to become caretakers of their spaces. 

It all starts with an idea

The now named Cleanup Collective began as the Cleanup Cart, a turnkey litter cart with all the supplies a volunteer crew would need, making organizing a litter pick-up easy, fun, and rewarding. In describing how they came up with the idea, Lucas said, “originally, we thought about reinventing the tools used by cleanup crews around the city to make them more efficient and easy to use. Once we actually started interviewing folks in the space, we realized that the majority of the workers had to rely on an improvised cart that had been manually constructed to accommodate all of their equipment and bins. Once we realized that there wasn’t an off-the-shelf cart designed to clean, we naturally made the leap to create a cart concept that would be specifically designed to clean up Cincinnati.”

The team then materialized this idea during the three-day hack-a-thon and presented it to a panel of judges, launching them down the path that eventually led to the rebranding of the Cart to Collective. Now, the startup offers its flagship cart as a service to any team that would like to host a cleanup event anywhere in Cincinnati. 

Currently, every cleanup event in the city relies on the dedication of a few team members to recruit volunteers, organize equipment, deploy their equipment, and coordinate the disposal of the litter collected. All that work for a few people is a lot to manage, so the group wanted to eliminate the fuss of organizing events. The Cleanup Collective simplifies the process and makes it easy to host a cleanup event anywhere in town by allowing event organizers to schedule their event and have a cleanup cart deployed to the location they will clean. The cart, equipped with enough cleaning inventory for up to 30 people, only requires the team to show up, clean, and leave the rest to the Cleanup Collective. 

Getting the Cleanup Collective off the ground

After the Rethink Litter Hack-a-thon, Lucas and the team submitted the idea to local Main Street Ventures, the financial engine for entrepreneurs in the greater Cincinnati region that gives them grants so that they can feel more empowered and connected in building their businesses than they would with traditional means. Main Street Ventures looks to support all good ideas and founders, but with a particular focus on women and minority entrepreneurs who have been historically underrepresented in the startup community. The group was awarded the full allotment of $30,000 through Main Street Ventures’ LEAP Grant, a grant awarded to businesses that demonstrate the potential to continue to create jobs and opportunities in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region. 

When asked what makes the Cleanup Collective’s impact unique and why the group was selected for the grant, Main Street Ventures Director of Development & Funding Programs Brianna Dzuricsko said that the “group’s concept made litter cleanup community-focused, which in the sustainability space can have a big impact on the future of our region.”

The grant allowed the Cleanup Collective to finalize the design and begin manufacturing the cart, which the group is doing locally with two manufacturing partners; Black Rhino Trailer based out of Amelia, Ohio, and Cincinnati Metal Fabricators, based out of Sharonville. Lucas is thrilled to be working with these Cincinnati-based partners, and said that “both factories are excited and incredibly supportive of our vision and goals and are working with us to develop a viable cart in a way we then could scale. This is a testament to our ecosystem and resources here in Cincinnati that allow creators like myself to produce goods sustainably and domestically.’

As the cart was being finalized, Lucas was hard at work creating the business model that would surround the cart. By participating in the Flywheel SustainableCincy Accelerator, an eight-week sprint for early to mid-stage startups. Entrepreneurs apply and, when accepted, join the cohort to work on the foundational elements of startup success, such as fine-tuning their business plan, customer validation, revenue models, financial plans, online presence, and more. Flywheel also connects its entrepreneurs to a coaching team for one-on-one support during the program. This support allowed Lucas and his team to connect and work with other sustainability-focused startups to build out the business around the cart itself.

During StartupCincy Week, Lucas and the Cleanup Collective team also participated in Alloy Development Co.’s Green Room, a “shark-tank” event focused on green and clean innovations. Participating startups walked away with feedback and resources to take their company to the next level. This program helps early stage startups gain more awareness, capitalize on the visibility and promotion of Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem at the peak of sustainability interest and provides access to seasoned sustainability experts and startup support from businesses and organizations that have a proven track record of growing startups. As the winner of the Green Room, the Cleanup Collective received a scholarship package of up to $5000 in value, including coaching, advisory, IP assistance, and more.


Left: Lucas Williamson at Flywheel Demo Day; Right; Cleanup Collective Team tabling at the Alloy Economic Development Awards Ceremony

"What was so cool about Lucas was he could have set up a business to simply build and sell his Cleanup Carts, but he wanted to do more. He wanted to build a company that could deploy the carts in the Greater Cincinnati area so he could prove he had a model that would make an impact. He worked with his Flywheel coaches who had experience with community development and public/ private partnerships to create a business model that would assure these carts were used and used often to keep Cincinnati beautiful."

What’s next

Lucas and team have a big year ahead of them as they begin to secure funding and officially launch the Cleanup Collective pilot program, where they plan to finalize their learning around the business and learn how they can improve the design of the flagship cart. While still in the Flywheel program, Lucas built the connections to secure his pilot contract to start in the Spring of 2023 with the The Cincinnati Parks Foundation (CPF/The Foundation), an organization founded in 1995 and the primary philanthropic partner of Cincinnati Parks. CPF’s mission is to build broad-based private/public partnerships that support the conservation and enhancement of our city’s parks and green spaces. 

CPF has yet to utilize the cart, but is excited to start. Colleen O’Connor, the Project Coordinator for CPF, said “we believe the impacts on the Cleanup Cart will be wide reaching. Last year we picked up over 300 bags or 5,000lbs of litter but did not have the capacity to sort recyclables or other solid waste. We’re excited that this will now be possible so that our cleanup initiatives can have a greater impact on the environment through the support of the collective.”

When asked what the future holds, Lucas is optimistic. “Once we go through the year and see where we can improve, we are hoping to build a fleet of Cleanup Carts to be able to support more events all over the city for next year,” he said. “Our hope is that by making hosting cleanup events easier to put on that we can incentivize more events to take place per year to maximize our city impact. Ideally, this helps create a cleaner Cincy for my son to grow up and take pride in.”

"We are so lucky to have Lucas in Cincinnati. For years he has been helping other entrepreneurs experience their dreams by designing their products. Now he has built his own product, and I'm looking forward to seeing his carts out on the streets, making our neighborhoods more livable. A true social entrepreneur, Flywheel wishes Lucas much success. He has the heart and the talent to do well while he does good."

Are you interested in seeing more innovative solutions address everyday problems?

Cintrifuse is partnering with the City of Cincinnati for the second annual Rethink Hack-a-thon, and this year, we are tackling recycling. Head over to our webpage to learn more about how you can get involved today.