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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: These Startups Are Out to Change the World

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you an easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

Held annually in Austin, Texas, the SXSW Eco conference gathers designers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders from across the sustainability and social impact space. Adding to its impressive portfolio of speakers and special events is the annual Startup Showcase, where tomorrow's business leaders square off in a fast-paced pitch competition to make their ideas a reality.

Moving into its fifth year, the event has become a launching pad for the latest innovations set to positively impact society and the environment. Collectively, participating companies have gone on to receive over $60 million in funding, acquire global brands as clients, and partner with utilities and energy companies, according to SXSW Eco organizers.

This year's competition, emceed by TriplePundit founder Nick Aster, featured 48 finalists and a diverse collection of creative ideas that promise to make people's lives easier and more sustainable. After days of deliberation, the judges decided on a winner in each of the six categories: social impact, IOT and software, food and agriculture, water, energy, and reuse and recycling.

Read on to learn more about the winners of the contest, presented by Austin Energy and the Austin Technology Incubator. You'll likely be hearing about them in the future.

Social impact: The Tycycler

Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa


Africa lacks a clean and legal mechanism for recycling waste tires, but thousands still depend on tire recycling for their livelihoods. "Across Africa the practice of burning waste tires to obtain the valuable steel bead wire laced inside has become a crude, but common practice," the makers of the Tycycler wrote on their website. Independent rubbish collectors set tires ablaze, releasing carcinogenic smoke, to recover steel wires -- which they then sell to informal waste brokers.

Cleaner tire recycling technologies exist but are expensive, complex and highly mechanized. That presents a clear barrier to adoption for informal waste workers. The Tycycler is the first non-motorized waste tire recycling device. And it's helping informal workers to operate sustainably, safely and efficiently.

"Using little more than a hydraulic jack, sharp edge and raw human energy, the device can extract the steel bead wire from up to 150 waste tires per day, producing between 180 and 200 kilograms of high quality steel bead wire," the founders wrote. The company claims each device creates two new full-time jobs and sequesters 4 tons of carbon emissions per day.

IOT and software: Eko Devices

San Francisco, California

The stethoscope has remained more or less unchanged for over a century, and electronic alternatives have proven slow to catch on. But the founders of Eko Devices are out to shake things up.

The Eko Core stethoscope allows healthcare professionals to switch between analog and digital modes with the push of a button -- providing amplification and smart device support to record and share critical sounds when they need it and classic analog performance when they don't.

The Eko Core platform also includes an app that allows healthcare professionals to stream audio wirelessly from their Eko digital stethoscope and quickly assess patients' heart, lung and body sounds in a non-invasive and effective way.

Food and agriculture: SabrTech

Nova Scotia, Canada

Algae may very well be the next big thing in clean tech. Innovators have applied the humble organisms in everything from aquaculture and biofuels to personal care products. But algae's booming popularity leaves questions about supply. How can we produce algal biomass sustainably and in quantities large enough to meet exploding demand?

SabrTech, developer of the RiverBox, may have a solution. The RiverBox algae cultivation platform is deployable for on-site algae production anywhere in the world. It can be used as a modular unit, in a greenhouse, outdoors exposed to the sun, or in a brick-and-mortar facility.

Due to its versatility, high yield and minimal resource use, the RiverBox overcomes common challenges faced by traditional algae cultivation methods -- such as low yields, lack of scalability and significant environmental impacts associated with open systems.

“With the right partners, SabrTech will become the global leader in local everywhere algal biomass production,” President and CEO Mather Carscallen promises on the company's website.

Water: Nutrient Recovery and Upcycling

Madison, Wisconsin


Nutrient Recycling and Upcycling (NRU) is out to change the way we manage nutrients in wastewater, transforming these materials from waste to resource.

Wastewater contains nutrients that, in high concentrations, are harmful to aquatic ecosystems. But these nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, have value for agriculture and other industries. Yet we still treat them as waste in the water treatment process.

With a foundation in chemistry and soil science, NRU claims to have developed technologies that recover nutrients from wastewater. The resulting materials are ready to be used as nutrient fertilizers and industrial precursors. The process not only creates high-grade fertilizers, but also lowers operational costs for treatment plants.

"Bridging the gap from waste to resource will help protect the health and prosperity of current and future generations," the founders wrote on their website. "Our mission is to develop innovative technologies and provide services that complete the circular economy of nutrients in wastewater treatment, agriculture and industry."

Energy: Skycool Systems

San Francisco, California

This startup, spinning out of Stanford University, is out to harness the cold of outer space to improve the efficiency of cooling and refrigeration systems.

The system is based on a natural phenomenon called radiative cooling. Here's the gist, via the MIT Technology Review: All objects emit thermal radiation. When it's emitted toward the sky, a good chunk of this radiation is absorbed and reflected by the atmosphere. But another portion escapes to the upper atmosphere and outer space, where of course it is much colder. This can cause the object emitting the radiation to cool well below the temperature of the surrounding air.

The appropriately dubbed Skycool Systems is developing rooftop panels its founders claim can cool fluids as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit below the ambient air temperature, utilizing radiative cooling. The system can run 24 hours a day, where the only electricity requirements are to run a pump.

The company claims the technology operates with zero evaporative losses and can improve the efficiency of cooling and refrigeration systems by as much as 40 percent.

Energy: Xstream Trucking

San Francisco, California


The freight industry is valued between $700 billion and $800 billion a year, but it comes with a hefty environmental impact: While trucks represent less than 5 percent of the vehicles America's roads, they create around a quarter of all vehicle carbon emissions. The folks behind Xstream Trucking, which tied with Skycool for the energy category, are out to cut that footprint down to size and increase the profitability of truck fleets.

They identified a key area ripe for improvement: the drag created by the gap between the cab and the trailer. This gap allows truckers to make sharp turns at low speeds, but it's basically unnecessary when doing a straight shot on the highway. At 65 miles an hour, 66 percent of a truck's fuel is spent overcoming this wind drag, according to the company.

The team's solution -- the Gapgorilla -- automatically deploys when a truck hits 40 miles per hour, allowing the truck to function almost like a bullet train on the highway. The company claims its solution can reduce fuel consumption by up to 40 percent without any interaction from the driver.

Reuse and recycling: Vartega Carbon Fiber Recycling

Denver, Colorado

Vartega is a recycler of advanced materials –- specifically strong and lightweight carbon fiber, used in the aerospace, automotive, wind energy and sporting goods industries. Approximately 30 percent of all carbon fiber is wasted as manufacturing scrap, totaling 15,000 metric tons per year, according to the company.

Through Vartega's patented recycling process, this expensive scrap material can be recycled into a low-cost grade of carbon fiber for use in things like aircraft interiors, automotive structures and wind turbine blades. The fiber can also be used as a 3-D printing filament -- turning yesterday's waste into the building blocks for tomorrow's technology advances.

Image credits: 1) 2) and 5) courtesy of SXSW Eco; 3) SabrTech 4) Skycool Systems 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni