Two local green companies among 25 in the world to win UN start-up competition

Seven Clean Seas' employees picking up trash and plastic waste from the coastlines of South-east Bintan in 2020. PHOTO: SEVEN CLEAN SEAS
A digital model of Seven Clean Seas' vessel-like river clean-up system. PHOTO: SEVEN CLEAN SEAS

SINGAPORE - Two local sustainability companies have beaten around 10,000 other green firms to join an elite group of 25 winners in a global start-up competition organised by a United Nations body.

The top 25 will now get access to venture capitalists, mentorship and potential partnerships with corporations worldwide.

Both Singapore start-ups aim to eradicate waste using high-tech equipment and novel methods.

Seven Clean Seas is racing to remove plastic from coasts, seas and rivers while Lumitics wants hotels and airlines to slash food waste.

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has been holding annual international start-up competitions since 2018, but the one it launched last year was the first to include the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 agenda.

At least one of the 25 winners is classified under each goal. Seven Clean Seas won under the "Life below water" goal while Lumitics prevailed under the "Sustainable consumption and production" goal.

"The award gives us international recognition and validation for all the hard work we've put in, and for the mission that we are pursuing, which is to help kitchens be more sustainable by reducing food waste," said Lumitics chief executive Rayner Loi, 26.

The four-year-old company's flagship product is Insight, a tracker that can be placed over rubbish bins to weigh and identify the food to be thrown away before it is dumped.

The device has a weight sensor and proprietary image recognition technology to weigh and identify the types of uneaten food or food waste. Kitchen staff just need to dump the food onto the device's tray and press a button for the sensor and camera to do their job. The tray can be tilted to drop the waste into the bin.

The data collected will be sent to a platform and analysed and recommendations made on how chefs can reduce food waste.

"Insight helps kitchens get a very granular understanding of what is being thrown away. The information will help the chef better plan for future services and not be in the dark," said Mr Loi, whose clients include Accor hotel group and Andaz Singapore.

Insight can help to reduce up to 40 per cent of food waste in kitchens and up to 8 per cent of food costs.

The UNWTO announced the 25 winners last week and will hold a virtual event for them early next month.

The winning start-ups were selected based on their innovation, scalability and business impact, among other criteria.

Seven Clean Seas founder Tom Peacock-Nazil said being able to access venture capitalists and other backers will be hugely beneficial: "We're a young team, and we rely heavily on these kind of mentors and their guidance."

(From left) Founder of Seven Clean Seas Tom Peacock-Nazil with co-founders Pamela Correia and Ben Moody. PHOTO: SEVEN CLEAN SEAS

The firm, which is almost three years old, is looking to achieve more milestones this year having collected over 100,000 kg of marine plastic from the coasts of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia so far.

It is working with naval engineers in Singapore to build a vessel-like machine that will cruise along rivers and scoop up tonnes of plastic in its way. The firm aims to build the first one soon and deploy it on either the Mekong River or Red River in Vietnam by the end of the year.

Rivers are a major source of plastic waste into oceans.

At its heart, Seven Clean Seas is a social enterprise that wants to provide jobs to people living in coastal communities and those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Later this year it will set up a materials recovery facility in south-east Bintan, where 50 Indonesians who have lost their jobs from the tourism bust will be hired to collect plastic waste from businesses and homes and clean up coastal areas.

The trash will be sorted and sent it to a recycling facility in Java.

Lumitics' team includes (from left) Hardware engineer Dinesh Kumar, chief technology officer Adriel Tan, chief executive officer Rayner Loi, lead computer vision engineer Lahiru Jayasinghe and lead software engineer Samson Choo. PHOTO: LUMITICS

The start-up uses a system called plastic offsetting to provide finance for its river roving system and to pay employees.

Similar to carbon offsetting, firms can buy plastic credits from Seven Clean Seas and invest in its projects and beach clean-ups to offset their unavoidable plastic use.

Firms have to pay US$1,000 or US$2,000 to buy one plastic credit that will offset 1,000kg of marine plastic.

Seven Clean Seas also provides plastic auditing services to help other firms reduce their plastics use.

It has 15 plastic-offsetting clients, including Microsoft and reusable masks company FaceWedge.

"One of the beauties of plastic offsetting is if a company has to pay for that plastic usage, then they are financially motivated to reduce the amount of plastic they're using," said Mr Peacock-Nazil, 32.

Both Seven Clean Seas and Lumitics have big ambitions.

Lumitics is expanding from hotels and restaurants by developing a smaller version of Insight so airlines can measure and reduce the amount of uneaten food and drinks. Singapore Airlines is one of its clients.

By 2025, Seven Clean Seas aims to recover 10 million kgs of plastic from the worst polluting countries, including China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

River plastic guzzler

This vessel-like machine will meander down rivers but instead of taking visitors on a cruise or housing fishermen, it will guzzle trash that comes in its way.

This is local start-up Seven Clean Seas' solution to clearing marine rubbish by targeting rivers, which is a major source of plastic waste into the oceans.

Powered on solar and wind energy, the river plastic recovery system is 30 metres long and six metres wide, with a container inside that can hold about 2,000kg of trash.

As it floats down the river, a long and thick wire traps debris in its way, including rubbish suspended up to 1m deep.

The trash will then be funnelled into the machine and up a conveyor belt to be stored in the container.

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The company is working with naval engineers from Longitude Engineering to develop the system.

They aim to build the first machine in Vietnam and deploy it on either the Mekong River or the Red River by the end of this year.

One machine will cost about US$300,000, said Mr Tom Peacock-Nazil, founder of Seven Clean Seas.

The machine can collect about 1.5 million kilograms of river trash in a year.

The system can also be customised to brave the elements of each river.

For instance, if one tends to flood frequently, the system will have a stronger mooring system to anchor it in place.

"We want to develop a system that is like a Swiss Army knife," Mr Peacock-Nazil said.

Dutch foundation The Ocean Cleanup has similar river cleaning machines called The Interceptor, which are operating on three rivers.

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