Recovering Minerals from E-waste – E74

Great to chat with Megan O’Connor,  CEO and Co-founder of  Nth Cycle, a company that recovers and recycles critical minerals from waste materials for the clean energy transition! We discussed the very small amount of batteries that are recycled worldwide, the process of recovering the minerals for the battery manufacturing supply chain, how Nth Cycle can help reduce the carbon footprint of the mining industry and more!

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The unedited podcast transcript is below

James McWalter: Hello today we’re speaking with Meghan O’Connor CEO and co-founder of Nth Cycle! Welcome to podcast Meghan.

Meghan O’Connor:  Thank you, thank you for having me today.

James McWalter: Brilliant I suppose to start could you tell us a little bit about Nth Cycle.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, absolutely Nth Cycle’s mission is to really enable a very clean, streamlined supply of the critical minerals we need for the energy transition. So we’re really trying to recover as much cobalt nickel. Ah, really the main battery materials. We’ll need from any type of feedstock. So we’re looking at mining in the different ores we have around North America as well as the spent materials. So like the laptops the cell phones even the ev packs that come off the road trying to recycle those to get those materials back into the supply chain.

James McWalter: And what drove the initial decision to start Nth Cycle .

Meghan O’Connor:  Let’s see it was back in 2014 when I was in graduate school actually um, the technology itself was invented over 12 years ago by my co-founder Chad Vecitis who was a Full-time professor at harvard university and he had developed it actually for a waste remediation strategy in fourteen I saw him give a talk on this technology and I thought wow that is a very different way of remediating different wastewaters than and I had seen before and around the same time that that happened. I was also getting very very interested in circular economy electronics waste recycling and really reading more and more into the projected supply chain delays as well as shortages that were you know, projected for 10155 years on the line with respect to critical materials and how that was going to impact.

James McWalter: So.

Meghan O’Connor:  The energy transition long term and I was actually in the hallway when I was at yale university and 1 of the professors there was trying to put together what he called a green electronic summit and this is where he invited some of the folks from Apple dell um. You know all the big electronics and semiconductor companies. You can think of to yale to talk about the major sustainability issues they were seeing at a corporate level to try and help yale’s internal research direction and so this was completely closed to students and. I was very determined anyway to try and get into this meeting and so I banged down this professor’s door for about 3 weeks until they finally let me in as a scribe. So I sat there taking notes for for many many hours by hand because I couldn’t even use my laptop but it was totally worth it to. Be the fly in the wall and to hear you know the real sustainability issues that all of these corporates. You know, truly saw coming down the line and over and over again I kept hearing you know waste management and recycling is is very much needed and will become an even larger issue right? as. More cell phones come out of consumers hands as more evs come off the road. This is just going to be a growing problem that we currently have no solution to and the main reason that is is that there’s really no ah economic way to recycle these materials the other problem that I kept hearinging over and over again was supply chain.

Meghan O’Connor:  Delays and management of that and how they saw these huge supply gaps coming down the line and how you know where are we going to get all this material from especially when you know the ev Boom boom happens because they think these were very early adopters of of that belief and so.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  You know I walked at that meeting thinking like how has nobody developed a solution to not only recycle these materials and really develop a rigorous waste management strategy while also pulling out these metals. You know, very economically to put them back into the supply chain to help create a secondary source of all these materials that are very much needed. And so from there I actually you know walked into my ph d advisor’s office I said I’m going to change my project. You know I saw this chad vaidis guy with this really interesting technology. Um I think you could really work for mental recycling and so I asked both of them if I could work on it and that’s what I changed my ph d project to and worked on for the next. Ah, three years and so that’s yeah.

James McWalter: That’s absolutely fascinating. Yeah, and and so so so what point you know before that meeting that you’re ascribing within or during the Ph D we were like okay this is actually a company that I personally want to build versus a technology that maybe somebody else can you know, utilize to solve this problem.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah I got you know as I was developing the technology and and scaling it for you know metals recycling over the 3 years finishing out my Ph D you know I kept thinking about that same question of of you know we could go and you know license this to 1 of the you know big companies that was in the room. But. Felt like it could have so much more potential if I brought it out into the world on my own and and I always knew I didn’t want to take the traditional path of of you know, becoming a professor or going into a standard industry position after my Ph D and so I think sort of the combination of the things really drove me to just take the risk and the leap into entrepreneurship to try and at least um. You know, commercialize it for the greater Good instead of just having 1 company sort of use it for their recycling purposes.

James McWalter: And in terms of the core technology. Ah you know as you kind of developed it into commercial applications. Did you have to pivot did some of your early suppositions not pan out. What was that process like.

Meghan O’Connor:  Absolutely I think every entrepreneur will say that they’ve had some kind of pivot for us. You know the technology works for many different metals across the periodic table so we actually started the company off with a huge focus on rare Earth so where earths are another. Ah, group of critical minerals that are in the magnets and big winter turbines and they’re the the magnets that power the motors and eves so they’re using similar technologies that you find batteries but the rare earth supply chain is quite difficult to get into because the majority of it is over in Asia. And so while we have sort of the end of life feedstocks here. We learned very early on that it might not be the best market for us at least to start off so that’s that was our first I wouldn’t say big pivot but definitely a pivot to a different feedstock to start with which is the lithium I batteries I mentioned.

James McWalter: And so the I guess in terms of let’s say you’re so where are you sourcing those that feedstock today like what are the primary sources and ah how again I guess how has that changed over the years

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, so we we primarily work with folks collecting different types of scrap in this case, Scrap lithium I and batteryteries. So they can come from directly from some of the oems if they’re if they’re they have manufacturing defects or things like that. Or if they’re just simply cell phones and laptops that consumers bring into like a best buy or any of the sort of drop off locations for your electronics. It ends up at a big recycler and then we partner with them to actually chemically recycle that back to the individual metals that go into manufacturing again.

James McWalter: So It’s a ton of kind of working to find partnerships where basically these yeah Lithium ion batteries are moving into like a waste stream and there might be some existing recycling but it’s not fit for purpose or just some sounds of it often. No recycling whatsoever and so your primary I Guess. Customer In this case is the ah you know those companies who are doing the recycling or trying to dispose of the waste in some way.

Meghan O’Connor:  Exactly exactly less than five percent of of lithium I batteries are recycled worldwide and the folks in the United states at least who are you know electronics forcycles and doing air quotes are just legally allowed to collect them and then basically find a home for them which sadly the vast majority of the time is in Landfills. And so yeah, we’re helping them to to find a better home bike actually being able to chemically recycle not just collect and ship to a landfill but actually chemically fully recycle them back into a used product again.

James McWalter: And so let’s say the ah you know you get a shipment in lithiumy batteries into your facility. What is the process. So and what can you share about I Guess the the kind of core ip that you’ve developed.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, no great question. So so we work with folks that take the batteries and they shred them down into this material. That’s called black Mass. It’s a very generic name but it really looks like black mass looks like salt water and it contains all the valuable metals right? It contains the cobalt The nickel.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  And then some graphite which is the anode of a battery so we take that black mass and we put it through our process which is called electro extraction and you can think about it as an electrified Britta Filter. So It’s a carbon filter that we push an electrical current across and while we’re pushing the dissolved black mass through. Electal current helps select or recover the individual metals out at that specific voltage. So That’s how we’re able to selectively remove the metals that we want while the rest of the stuff goes through to the next stage.

James McWalter: And so the the filter I suppose what is the kind of Ma material to use for the filter and can they be reused and I guess then the other kind of major input is electricity itself and so I suppose how electric electrically intensive is the process.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, so the filters can be reused. They are made out of a carbon material and the electricity inputs actually are the lowest part of our total operating cost. So it’s It’s a very very efficient process in terms of how much electricity put in to turn that metal into a valuable product.

James McWalter: I Love this and and and so then for a I guess a battery manufacturer um like those are your primary kind of customers on the other side then is is the case.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, yes, we do make a product that can be put back into the battery manufacturing supply chain. Exactly.

James McWalter: And are a lot of those like onshore or you’re then kind of moving into a more globalized supply chain I Guess where are mostly these Lithium iron batteries being built.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, so the US and North american in general is building out facilities to to create and manufacture cathodes. We’re still a few years away from that. So the majority of the material is moved um, offshore to europe at the moment. But.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, the the goal is to keep all this material sort of in the North american supply chains as we continue to grow out and invest in our own you know, entire supply chain and the manufacturing that goes along with all the various steps to create you know the batteries that you see you know once you drive your eb around.

James McWalter: And I was going to the earlier mention you have of circular economy is there any limit to how many times your process could recycle a given material. Um and you know can I actually could get circularly back into the economy each time.

Meghan O’Connor:  I love that question because that is where we got our name from so end cycle um is right unlimited amount of times we can recycle this material. You know as many times as we can get up back to our process and so yes, in theory you can recycle Metals. You know an unlimited end amount of times. Um, so that’s what’s so great about it is once we have enough material. You know the goal is to truly enable a decrease in the the total mining that we have to do around the world.

James McWalter: Yeah, and actually that was going to my next question about how you think this will affect the mining industry writ large you know when I think about the different industries that need to Decarbonize. You know there are some that are moving pretty quickly and and I think about energy and transport to a certain extent. Some that are kind of in the middle which is a lot of the kind of food system and then you have the very hard kind of last togo industries and I think you know aviation and mining are probably chief among Them. How do you think about how your how end cycles kind of process will potentially help decarbonize mining.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes I think I think mining has you know a very negative connotation for good reason right? that the technologies and the the processes they use today are very dirty. They are very carbon intensive like you said, um and a lot of the you know mining space has has seen as you know, not really wanting to move forward and and evolve and. Um, Sadly, we do need to mine more material. We simply do not have enough coal to nickel and all the other critical minerals needed. You know within the waste streams that we have um to be able to continue on this path to clean, um to a clean energy economy so we do need to think rethink about mining and that’s you know the other side of NTHcycles business is sustainable. Mining. Actually pulling these metals out of the ground in a much more sustainable way with a much lower carbon footprint. So we can go on site with these mine operators help them pull the cobalt and the nickel out of the ground and we can reduce their carbon footprint by seventy five percent so no more of these very hazardous chemicals or anything that you know. Is is traditionally thought of when you when you think of mining.

James McWalter: That’s that’s absolutely fascinating and I guess we’re also in this kind of ah massive acceleration in the amount of lithium ion batteries needed and obviously evs are emergent. Everybody has a mobile device or most people have a mobile device in their in their pocket everything from drones to many other use cases are using these type of batteries. And so I guess how do you think about the kind of addressable Market how that how that that is expanding and how that affects your business long-term.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, yes, So so the market is quite large I mean with the the amount of batteries that are needed again to to fully electrify and and move us forward to this clean energy economy the market just just grows astronomically over the next 10 years but for recyclers. In particular, we’re sort of 8 to 10 years behind any massive growth in manufacturing because we have to wait for all those packs to come off the road. So The average you know, expected lifetime say for a Tesla is 8 to 10 years. They’re they’re estimating and so we have to wait for those to come back out of the consumer’s hands and into the recycling market to see that so we see sort of a delayed bump.

James McWalter: So.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, in terms of our market growth. But if you look at the total sort of critical minerals market in general and not just the the fraction that goes into batteries I mean it is you know 1 hundred and sixty 7 billion dollars by 2030 it is you know that’s how much material will need for this for this transition.

James McWalter: Absolutely massive I guess 1 of the issues when I’ve talked to other companies who are trying to replace or recycle commodities in some way in in a way that’s less’s carbon intensive or fully decarbonized. There’s often this kind of challenge between ah, getting to price parity versus you know the the status quo. How do you think about the pricing of like what is I suppose like ah like a perfect case for encycle down the road is price parity a name or is the fact that it is a recycled material. There is value in that feature in of itself means that price parity is I guess less important.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, so electro extraction in general can reduce the overall cost of of pulling these metals whether it’s out of you know end-of-life batteries or out of the ground and and new mining operations by fifty percent or more and so we are very cost competitiveive with the traditional technologies and on top of that. You know it is a recycled material so there is a little bit more demand for that type of material in general I wouldn’t say it’s ah, there’s any kind of monetary Value. You can put to that quite yet. But we are starting to see more and more movement especially in the commodities trading space of folks wanting and. Being able or being willing I should say to pay a higher price for recycled content especially in in the Automotive space.

James McWalter: And where you have to today you know in terms of like the size of facility. The amount of processing you can do in a typical day or year or whatever the kind of relevant frequency and I guess what’s the kind of plans over the next yeah 12 to eighteen months.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, so right now we actually just moved into a 12000 square foot facility so this is our headquarters just outside of Boston massachusetts on the North shore. So we’re very excited we yes they get up and running there.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, and we actually will be at our we’re still in the scaling process in terms of our technology development and we’ll be at our full commercial scale in Q One of 2022 so at that point we’ll be able to process about 6 metric tons of battery waste per day.

James McWalter: And if you considered licensing the technology um with other kind of partners globally um versus kind of having it all under your roof in in your kind of initial facility and then subsequent facilities.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, so our actual business model is more of a tolling model so we’ll actually go on site with these various customers because again 1 of the largest challenges with batteries in particular is that it’s a very distributed form of waste and it’s very hazardous to ship all this material to 1 location. So.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  I’m sure you know we can all think of the videos that we saw of these batteries sort of spontaneously combusting right? and so you can imagine when they’re of a lot of defects and they’re at their end of life and they’re being transported in a truck and they’re being jostled all around a lot of safety issues. You know can can can come up and so the value of Encycls technology is not only in.

James McWalter: And red.

Meghan O’Connor:  The you know greenhouse gas reduction and the cost reduction but also in the modularity so we can actually go on site to wherever this waste are located so saving an entire transportation step which also has you know a carbon impact and process that material right there and pull out these products which are then you know much lower volume much higher Value. You know, much easier to transport to that final stage of of the refinement before it goes into manufacturing and so here again, we’ll be on site with these customers and we’ll charge a fee per Kilogram of of say battery waste that we process for them. And so we have thought about the licensing model. But again the real value. You know we can bring to this feedstock in particular is is being on site and operating for those partners.

James McWalter: And I believe you recently raised a round of Capital. Um, you know you’re I’m sure talking to tons of investors some who I’m sure earns Yeah, understand the space but I’m sure there’s also a lot of generalist investors and vcs who may be a little bit less familiar with the space. You know what? what are the elements that they found most compelling as part of those conversations.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, yeah I think our investors were not only impressed with the technology and how we were you know the technology allowed us to come up with a completely different business model right? This very distributed modular approach. Instead of having to raise you know hundreds of millions of dollars to fill out this 1 facility for 1 feedstock like you see in the battery recycling space right? now you know our technology can go out and process really any type of scrap that has cobalt and nickel in it and I think they really loved the diversification that we could bring to the table and the overall mission of again, not trying to focus on on 1 feedstock because. You know recycling lithiumine batteries is a very much needed a space to be in. But even if we were tocycle 1 hundred percent of lithium ion batteries in 2030. It would still only be about ten percent of the total metals for cobalt and nickels specifically that will need you know for the projected demand so we need to look at you know. All the different feedsocks across the entire so value chain and think okay, where can we get that other you know ninety percent of metal that we’ll need if it can’t come from from spent lithy mine batteries and so that’s really what end cycle I think brought to the table that was quite different from our competitors and even some of our partner facilities that we work with is. You know we’re really trying to take a holistic view of this and I think you know that combined with the team and and really our passion for the space was was what really sold them.

James McWalter: And that’s absolutely fascinating and and I guess there’s a couple different other kind of tailwinds that are potentially kind of would come up when as I was in the research into into encycl and into the space and I guess 1 is you know postco there are tons of concerns around ah supply chains. Um, and. Even supply chains that have some sort of national security element right? So chips but lithiumyon batteries are arguably becoming part of ah you know like a national security point point of view as well. How do you think about how like en cycle intersects with some of those concerns some of those tailwinds around. Tighter supply chain supply chains that you know national economies that have a large technological yeah use case are kind of dependent on.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, absolutely we hear all the time that right? This is a big national security issue for for lithium mine batteries but also for a lot of the materials that are used in the defense space for a lot of the the technology that’s used there as well and and you know having. You know the pandemic impact that even more I think just shown a light on it. You know, even brighter that you know we really are truly almost 1 hundred percent dependent on overseas metal supply chains and we really need to start looking and investing at Technologies here to bring. Not only the manufacturing back. But also the refining capacity because that’s really the biggest pain point that we’re trying to solve is that you know the United states and north america in particular just really didn’t invest in the refining capacity that is needed to bring all the manufacturing back here because where even if we had battery manufacturer. We’d still have to get the metals from Overseas. There’s multiple parts in that supply chain that I think you know we’re really riding the tailwinds of of of you know the government is starting to realize industry is starting to realize that oh hey this is and a really big deal and it’s coming a little bit faster than I think folks thought and people are starting to you know think. Think a little bit more strategically about where we get those materials from and what types of technologies. You know they’re willing to invest in even if you know it is earlier stage than what traditional you know investors would look for especially in climate tech.

James McWalter: Yeah I think you were speaking a little bit about this in your recent techcrunch presentation I believe that you came runner up in that just last month I guess what was that experience like.

Meghan O’Connor:  Why for Tech Crunch. It was great. I mean that audience was phenomenal and we’ve never really been able to pitch to a global audience before so that in itself was very exciting for us and I think just the coaching and and ah, really all of the fabulous people that we were in the competition with was just really wonderful. It was It was. About 8 weeks of really intense training sessions to to get ready for that. So that was you know something on its own. But yeah, once we got to that day. It was just it was really exciting to be able to just you know tell the story of end cycle to as many people as we could possibly reach.

James McWalter: And I guess probably helpful from a kind of challenge point of view as well. Um, as you kind of scale up I’m sure you need you know, very very smart people across a lot of different. Um you know domains to really make end cycle bring an end cycle to that next level and having that kind of global form potentially helps with that as well.

Meghan O’Connor:  Absolutely absolutely the team I think makes or breaks a company I think you could have the best technology in the world. But if you don’t have the right team behind you. You’re never going to execute on that on that vision and so yes I think that too again just telling the encycle story having as many people whether they’re investors or potential Employees. You know here. You know what? we’re all about and what we’re trying to do or the next several years was was really exciting and we did actually get a lot of inbound interest from that So I was you know, really really happy with that.

James McWalter: And so when I think about how kind of lithium ion batteries and the use cases for them. You know a lot of them are in our mobile devices and the large yeah mobile devices manufacturers apple samsung etc. Basically there’s a kind of system of planned obsolescence. You know there’s always a new phone coming out the the next year or the next quarter. And people are encouraged to yeah, replace their phones. Ah what is your kind of general view on that that form of planned obsolescence is that sustainable I mean obviously what encycle can do is dramatically reduce the the cost of that on on society and the cost of that from a waste point of view. Um, but what about that as a practice are we going to see moves to kind of move away from that type of business model.

Meghan O’Connor:  I hope so so could say about that I I really hope so I do not think it’s sustainable I think you know, ah you know planning these for these devices to die after 2 years at best for these phones is is. Horribly unsustainable, especially when you think about the design changes that have happened even over the past five years right? I remember you know back when I had my first couple of cell phones. You could take the battery out you could change the battery you had you know the removable parts of the phone and now if you look at phones like you know I have a phone here.

Meghan O’Connor:  And I can’t remove the battery out of it. You know so that if you think about how that translates to recycling that’s you know, an excessive amount of labor that goes into actually disassembling the phone because you can’t simply pop the battery out so they actually shred the whole phone together which makes it you know. Ah, orders of Magnitude more difficult to actually recycle and so if we could go back and you know manufacture these phones and think about I like to call it design for disassembly it would make recycling easier. We’d be able more of these components back into the supply chain instead of a lot of them just ending up in the trash.

James McWalter: Ah.

Meghan O’Connor:  Because they’re so difficult to disassemble. That’s really I think the the major challenge on the mechanical separation side I think there are people literally using their hands to separate these. There’s no automated way to do this yet unfortunately and then in every phone there’s seventy five different elements so that makes it very comfortable.

Meghan O’Connor:  Folks like us to be able to separate individually all those 75 elements out some of them are metal Some of them are not and so if we were able to separate out these different components if they change the manufacturing design. We’d be able to just pull out the Lithium ion battery and then the magnets that have the rarersenum and really be able to separate out those those individual component streams I like to call them. Which you know takes it from 75 elements to down to maybe 5 which is you know much more reasonable and much more efficient to recycle.

James McWalter: And I guess thinking about to that meeting. You sat in on 4 or 5 years ago whatever maybe compared to those conversations you overheard or you were sitting in on then versus the conversations with the oems and these large corporations I’m sure you’re having today has the messaging changed are they getting the need to change some of their manufacturing processes. Or is it pretty slow going and and you know they’re not close to where you need to get to.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, so I think the consumer electronic brands are definitely moving a little bit faster I think they see the value in it having a lower carbon fiber material and in that transparency that comes along with you know, really tracking where the Michelle comes from so I think.

James McWalter: Button.

Meghan O’Connor:  And and a lot of that is coming from consumers right? I think a lot like Apple and dall I think are leading the charge in that sense of of really trying to be more transparent of where you know the aluminum comes from where the cobalt comes from um, right because people don’t want a phone that you know the cobalt content comes from the democratic. To the democratic republic of congo where you know there were so children mining that material and so I think you’re starting to see a little bit more movement there and then in the automotive space. You know you’re starting to see them think about okay, what are we going to do when you know they made they’ve all made these massive announcements if they’re going to be fully electric by I don’t know 2045.

Meghan O’Connor:  30 whatever the number is for that specific oem but you know what are they going to start to do with all this waste. You know, very difficult to handle waste. You know 10 years down the line so they’re a little slower because I think their problem is a little further pushed out than like you said right cell phones in the last 2 years so the electronics manufacturers have to think a little bit faster on that. But.

James McWalter: And.

James McWalter: Right.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, they definitely are are both. You know, definitely seeing the urgency of the problem now.

James McWalter: I Guess what is the kind of role of the consumer in this you know I think there’s often this kind of pressure where people across the you know the consumer side the business side. The government side often. It’s like oh well, you know consumers made better choices than business would respond to that and Or. Consumers Will you know like organizations will say Well yeah, business are pushing upon them ah products that are just you know net bad for the planet and you know consumer choice is somewhat limited.. How do you think about? Let’s say the role of Consumer choice in yeah, reducing this as a problem.

26:34.78 Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah I think from a couple of different angles right? You can choose where you want to get your phone so you know do your research you know the what companies are actually using recycled content or trying to use recycled content or at least have goals of reusingcycled recycled content by. 202055 because there are companies out there that are actively trying to work on this and then from the other side you know you know if um, you know plans obsolescence doesn’t go away and you have to get rid of your phone in 2 years right you know truly try to find a place where it can be Recycled. Don’t throw it in the trash I can’t tell you the number of people that I talked to that still don’t realize you have.

James McWalter: No.

Meghan O’Connor:  Recycle e-waste. We’re like oh yeah, just you know, throw it in the regular trash and I’m like no don’t do that? Um, because it’s in at least in the United states right? It’s it’s a very state by state thing in terms of the regulation. There’s no sort of federal regulation that says you have to recycle ewaste. Unfortunately so you know.

James McWalter: All right.

Meghan O’Connor:  I Think consumers you know, need to take that upon themselves which I think Education is a big part of it of of teaching people where to take these devices and but them figuring out you know, take these is a huge part of it because if if they don’t return them in and they just sit like like I know my parents have.

Meghan O’Connor:  You know a couple cell phones sitting in their sock drawer because they didn’t know what to do with them right until I helped them figure out where to take them. Um, you know if they’re sitting in a door somewhere. We can’t we can’t recycle them so they’re just really lost content to us at that point.

James McWalter: Absolutely and I’m definitely guilty as well of having the random drawer full of random batteries and the old phones and you know and in theory right? You’re going to bring them to the right place. Ah, but you know but the greatest will in the world often. We make those mistakes and it it is quite difficult because. Like it should be I don’t know I guess any electronic device just have like a big sticker. It says you know you’re in New York State or you’re in Massachusetts and you know here’s the closest place to your address. Ah try to reduce somewhat. But again it is to your point. Um, you know the consumer does have to take some role in that as well.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes, and it should be. It should be easier I Hope we get to that point of where it’s it’s It’s very obvious and and very easy for people to figure out where those go because you’re right part of it is. There’s just really no communication on it in general.

James McWalter: And I guess as you look across you you know, but your space as well as I guess circular economy approaches and in general where would you like to see more innovation I mean I’m sure there’s a bit of an all of the above like answer that question but specifically like where could you know? smart people who want to start companies or join companies doing smart things where are the areas that you kind of. Point them towards besides nth Cycle. Of course.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yes I think ah plastics recycling Um I can tell you how much I Wish we had a better solution for plastics recycling right? I mean I as try as we might to to.

James McWalter: Ah.

Meghan O’Connor:  To go away from single use plastic. There is still plastic in so many of our devices in things that are packaged and sent to us and you know soap from the store and things that you somewhat can avoid um you know it’s sadly like even if you put it in the recycling bin.

James McWalter: Ah.

Meghan O’Connor:  The the chances are that it’s not recycled right? So I Hope that somebody is out there and I’m sure there are very very smart people like you said out there developing a much cleaner more efficient way to sort the plastic which is I think challenge number 1 and then actually getting it to be recycled and and back into products and then I’ll say the other 1 closer to myspace is. I think I mentioned this a little bit before but you know right now even for Ev packs and consumer Electronics. You know, part of the recycling challenge is that all of these components are stuck together so you can imagine when recyclers get these massive ev packs in right? They’re the packs.

James McWalter: Ah.

Meghan O’Connor:  And then you have the modules and then you have the individual cells like somebody is manually standing there in this you know giant suit so they don’t get electrocuted pulling out these cells 1 by 1 it takes you know, basically a whole shift 1 shift to take up our 1 pack if it’s a big enough pack so you can imagine once we get to you know the massive eve the messes of evs that we want to. That is going to be a huge bottleneck so I hope somebody is out there and you know if anybody’s thinking about this. This is a great opportunity to to figure out how to automate that. How do we efficiently start to to depack these cells and and even for consumer electronics right? How do we do that you know Automated. So I say those are the 2 big things that come.

James McWalter: Yeah, so I love that as an idea and it’s definitely something that as I know talked to a lot of people or never researched people for this podcast I think there are people working on plastic actually. Ah.

Meghan O’Connor:  Top of mind.

James McWalter: And julia from sway is going to be talking I think right before this episode comes out. Um they’re doing ah like an algae- based ah plastic replacement for sing these plastics and we’ve got a few other people kind of working on like plastic substitutes. Although the recycling piece is still quite difficult but that separation piece absolutely and ah, we’ve also talked to some people in the more in the food wayside. And even kind of sorting out food waste into composting and so on these are all just very very difficult things. It needs a combination of both mechanical biochemical and maybe other processes as well. And so yeah, you kind of it sounds to really tackle that problem you need smart people coming from. A lot of different disciplines and perspectives to try to build out a process that works at scale very good and so yeah as I kind of dug into your background I almost fascinated. You know how people’s was fascination with the environment and with I guess sustainability with large starts.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, absolutely.

James McWalter: Yeah, is there anything that you can point to in your kind of early early days. Um, that got you excited about this space.

Meghan O’Connor:  Yeah, so I think when I was an undergrad at union college in Upstate new york I in general they’re a very environmentally conscious school and so I think just being there and having you know all the clubs and and just having a really eco-conscious. Campus to live on was like sort of the first thing that sort of hit me is like wow like I’ve never been around this before and this is pretty cool but then the research that I did there I was it was a chemistry major and I worked specifically in an environmental chemistry lab and you know my professor and just everything she could teach me about you know how.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  Chemicals are transported through the environment and how it affects like different ecosystems whether it’s human Animal. You know, whatever you know the being is that’s being affected but just really learning about how every single thing that we make you know has an impact on this world and and trying to figure out how we can. Sort of mitigate that or at least try it to stop it from happening trying to create a solution without causing a whole bunch of other issues along with it was just super fascinating to me and that’s you know, doing those projects you know was great and I loved looking at you know how these molecules are transport the environment and can affect. You know, very small scale things but it. It didn’t really um, satisfy my desire to to make an impact at a very large scale and so I actually transferred um at once I graduated from Undergraduate I went into civil and environmental engineering so still doing a lot of that and like environmental chemistry work that I really fell in love with. But at the engineering Scale. You know you can make a much bigger impact in a much shorter period of time and so that’s really where I fell in love with you know all the different technologies and how they can solve some of these really large sustainability challenges in general.

James McWalter: And and thinking then about let’s say you came out of a University background with a technology designed as part of your Ph D with these amazing advisors who became your early team members. But I suppose I’ve talking to a lot of people who’ve developed. Cool Technologies in Academia and the technology then never really gets commercialized.. There’s kind of this breakpoint like in the kind of space between academic kind of applications and then commercializations and sometimes it’s down to funding the funding environment’s too opaque or sometimes you know the. Right? Kind of operator person coming from start of world doesn’t speak to the right academic coming from the kind of technical side. What could be done to kind of create a better pipeline of companies coming out of universities.

Meghan O’Connor:  Oh that’s such a great question and I and I see that all the time and it’s something that we suffered with right I mean my co-founders and I are very academic. Um and you know as best as I could to learn all the business stuff. There was still certain things that I just couldn’t grasp fast enough.

James McWalter: Er.

Meghan O’Connor:  And so I think for us it was really finding that right partner which is not always the easiest right? Like you said finding that right person who understood the type of business model that we needed and could help me with the financial side of things not to mention like learning how to fundraise the right way and what types of capital you would like at certain stages I think. Something that I found is really really interesting at least the universities that I went to was a lot of times they have really great competitions internally where they pair some technical folks with folks from the business school who are very interested in entrepreneurship and climate in general and building those teams with people with you know all the right skill sets coming together. Um, and trying to start a company that way I think has been really interesting and I have seen a lot of success stories of that of those of those folks and those groups that have won these competitions going out into the world and and creating these successful companies. So I think that’s been I Think the the biggest thing that I’ve seen work. Um. If if you’re sort of in still in University and and looking for folks to help you sort of build out the team in the right way. But for us, you know we really just went out and and I tried to meet as many people as I could tried to Network tried to tell our story and the more you tell your story and the more you harness that in.

James McWalter: And.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, you will find people who also fall in love with it and believe in you and believe in the team and and you’ll find you’ll find the right fit.

James McWalter: Yeah I think of universities have this great potential for matchmaking right? You know people find the the people they phone love with and people find you know business partners and and some of the best friends of their lives and all these kind of things and that yeah I love this model that that you mentioned of the business school and the the more technical people are are otherwise kind of. Meeting up and working on projects together because that kind of cross-pollination you know allows pretty interesting things to potentially be emergent and I guess you know you your came straight into you know from mind understanding. This is the first kind of company I guess you worked at I know it’s and it’s also you know you you found that it you’re the ceo.

Meghan O’Connor:  Exactly exactly.

James McWalter: What are some of the things you’ve learned as Ceo that I guess you found a bit surprising once you kind of were kind of building out the company right.

Meghan O’Connor:  Oh so many things. Um I think 1 h r in my mind was something that was not going to be difficult and oh boy that is that is not far is not easy. So.

James McWalter: Paper.

Meghan O’Connor:  Think next time I do this or if I had to do it again I would hire you know an external firm to help me with that almost immediately because there’s so many things you can want on that side. Um, in terms of payroll whatnot but the other thing I think was was you know, just really finding the right support system finding the right investors finding the right cheerleaders.

James McWalter: Okay.

James McWalter: No.

Meghan O’Connor:  Was I knew would be important but I didn’t realize how important right? Those people are really there to support you but also to go and tell other people. How great you are and what the company’s mission is and so that that networking piece is just so much bigger than I ever thought it would be so I think those 2 things are the first things come to mind. But I think I learned something new every single day.

James McWalter: Yeah, no, absolutely yeah, no so and it’s funny like I was at a previous company and our 10 to tent hire was actually a full-time hr person which is pretty pretty unusual I think but it was a fully remote company. This is a number of years ago and it actually really helped massively particularly for.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, and the challenges that come along with.

James McWalter: Remote company because you could start to have a single person to kind of like start to figure out like what Ra remote culture could look like and all those elements and and then also the day to day of yeah making sure everyone gets paid and and all those kind of things. Um and the other bit around the I suppose that that networking piece is kind of fascinating I think as people are trying to.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, and Then. Um, but.

James McWalter: Build companies until they kind of get I guess it’s like this kind of wedge is kind of filter where it seems like nobody’s returning your calls. Nobody’s like answering anything. Um, you’re like you know you’re looking around and everybody seems to be raising money and everybody seems to be like you know, getting featured on different things and then it often just takes like 1 or 2 people to. Make a little bit of a bet on you. You know make that in shirt that you mentioned and then all of a sudden. It’s like oh like it’s it’s kind of easy. You know all of a sudden and and I guess I think a lot of people and I definitely don’t think you’re in this case but I think a lot of people forget how difficult that early filter. Processes um, until they get into you have that next step where they have a few investors or a few people senior in the industry to kind of vouch for them.

Meghan O’Connor:  Oh absolutely I could not agree more again. This is our fourth year and we are now just starting to gain traction and to really you know, go out and talk to customers and folks like yourself right? so. Took us many many many years to to like you said filter through as many people as we could to find the right support system and the right cheerleaders that we needed and and I think a lot of it was you know we finally were able to get you know, clean energy ventures and that you know wonderful backing by them that led us to different mentors and and team members and so I think. Like you said you just have to really you get through that part. It is not easy I will say it was a really long 3 years but you know you get to that point and you find those people who who truly get and understand and believe in what you’re doing like it’ll just start to happen and it’s ah it’s a great time.

James McWalter: Absolutely yeah and I’m really excited for you know what end cycle is going to do in the future I suppose before we finish off is there anything I should have asked you about but did not.

Meghan O’Connor:  Um, well we are always looking for great team members. So if anyone is interested. Please feel free to to contact us on our website at Encycle Dot Com We’re looking for some really great engineers and some business development folks. So I would love to hear from you if you’re at all interested in in end Cycle’s mission.

James McWalter: And we’ll include your careers page in the in the show notes as well. Ah Meghan O’Connor:   This has been absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much.

Meghan O’Connor:  Thank you so much for having me today bye bye.

Net-zero energy communities – E64

Great to chat with Sean Rodrigues, CEO at Sky Blue Impact, Sky Blue Impact develops and arranges the funding for net-zero energy social housing communities in the USA and large scale net-zero energy communities in Africa! We discussed how to provide affordable housing addressing major climate issues, advantages the developing world has by starting with new tech from scratch and more!

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Thanks so much! 

For the Love of Garbage! – E59

Great to chat with Oakley Jennings-Fast, Director of Circular Economy at Smart Waste Inc, a startup that offers sustainable waste management solutions! We discussed the importance of longevity and repairability in the goods we buy, teaching circular economy through decluttering, garbage as a resource, the importance of calling your recycling hauler and more!

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Oakleys’ podcast

Upcycling Urban Trees – E58

Great to chat with Ben Christensen, CEO of Cambium Carbon, a circular economy startup reforesting America by enabling local wood economies! We discussed Carbon Smart Wood, where city trees go when they fall, how local connections are key to developing a circular economy, the power of storytelling in climate and more!

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Building the Refillable Revolution! – E48

Great to chat with Caren McNamara, founder and CEO of Conscious Container, a company with a refillable glass bottle system to reduce Single-Use Packaging Waste! We discussed the state of global recycling, the pros and cons of glass as a container, how customers think about the aesthetics of reused bottles, the importance of transparency as you build an MVP and more!

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#startup #cleantech

reBLENDING Wasted Food – E47

Great to get into the details with Kathryn Bernell CEO and founder of reBLEND, company making high quality smoothie pops from delicious but misshapen fruits and vegetables. We discussed how they built a low waste supply chain,  how sustainably minded CPG companies think about margins, how important branded fridges in pilates studios were to their initial traction, how they track their sustainability metrics and much more!

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#startup #cleantech

Enabling the Circular Economy – E43

I learned so much from Garry Cooper, CEO and cofounder of Rheaply, a company which is an exchange platform for organizations to visualize, quantify, and utilize their physical assets. We discussed how a cart in a university laboratory was the genesis for Rheaply, how they are targeting the $630 billion of underutilized US asset capacity, the future of the circular economy, the importance of market place dynamics and gamification design principles to their product, how he thinks about customer feedback and shipping product, and much more!

Upcycling with Global Impact – E40

Fantastic conversation with Joshua Shefner, co-founder and CEO of Agricycle Global, a company Upcycling natural fruit overabundance and diverting food waste into healthy, all-natural brands you love! We discussed their fascinating founding story which hops from Jamaica to Panama to Uganda, their pivots along the way, how they built a community of thousands of farmers through word of mouth, their impact on climate change, how they are impacting rural poverty, the challenges in building a global team and much more!

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#startup #cleantech

The Future of Food is Local -E19

Inspiring chat with Marcia Woods, founder and CEO of FreshSpoke, a marketplace that makes it easy to source local food by sustainability tapping into excess logistics capacity. We discussed why “local” is the future of food, the importance of logistics data to sustainable supply chains, how they managed multiple company pivots and what that meant for the types of investors who were most interested, how to balance supply and demand when the marketplace has more than 2 sides how to build an amazing founding team, where her passion for sustainability and entrepreneurship came from and more!

Ending single use plastic – E18

Really interesting podcast with Shadi Bakour, the CEO and Co-Founder of Pathwater, a company whose aluminum water bottles are designed to be refilled and reused infinitely unlike single use plastic water bottles. We discussed the importance of balance customer expectations and sustainability, how many times the typical path water bottle is reused and what its carbon footprint is, what it takes to expand a product across multiple countries, how celebrity association has been a game changer, responding to demand with multiple product lines, and more!