We at Iamrenew had the opportunity to interact with the founders of Ubuntoo, Peter Schelstraete and Venkatesh Kini, and they shared their inspiration and vision with us.
Ubuntoo is an Atlanta based startup that was founded by two former Coca-Cola employees. It is a global collaboration platform that helps accelerate the UN SDGs, beginning with solutions to plastic waste and pollution.
Within 3 months since its launch in March 2019, Ubuntoo has created a global community of 1000 members that include scientists, academicians, innovators, Fortune 500 company executives and NGO employees.
When Peter and Venky quit their careers to pursue their calling, they knew they wanted to do something to make the world a better place. They spent months researching a variety of issues and brainstorming business ideas. They finally applied the Japanese principles of Ikigai – create a business at the intersection of their expertise (global marketing and business management), passion (love for the environment), what the world needed (solving big global problems through innovation), and a business opportunity (connecting big companies to sustainability innovations). The whole process took 6 months, which led to the creation of Ubuntoo. 1 year later, the platform has been launched, but the founders continue to tweak their business model on a periodic basis.
They then touched on the positive trend they have witnessed. Venkatesh said,” The biggest positive trend we have seen is the increasing importance of sustainability to build corporate brands with consumers, employees and other stakeholders. In the past sustainability was relegated to the sidelines as a “CSR” activity, but now companies around the world are having to incorporate sustainability principles and stories into their brand marketing, procurement, R&D and recruiting efforts.”
On being asked about one negative aspect he added,” A negative change is the spread of misinformation and half knowledge through the internet, thanks to unverified short viral videos, social media feeds, ability for people to forward stuff easily, and so on. As a result, individuals, corporate decision makers and policy makers are often confused about what is the right thing to do.”
He then also discussed how Indian companies, especially in solid waste management, are doing a good job. “There are many startups in India that are doing great work in the space of solid waste management. Some have received a lot of interest from Indian media, like Kabadiwalla Connect, Banyan Nation, Hasiru Dala Innovations, Paperman Foundation, TrashCon and Saahas Zero Waste. However, lesser known startups are also doing good work. For example, Inora in Pune, RePurpose in Mumbai, BluePhin in Cochin, and PlasticQube in Kolkatta. All these are found on Ubuntoo” explained Kini.
Kini went on to elaborate about where he sees the company in 5 years. “We want Ubuntoo to become the go to resource for anyone wanting to address a sustainability problem, as an individual, company, community, city or country. We see it becoming “LinkedIn meets Airbnb” for sustainability” he further said, “Our plan is to consolidate our platform in plastic waste and then extend to other topics like food, fashion and water. We will continue to expand our user base through our marketing outreach and connections that we enable.”
For the areas that they see future growth Kini added that artificial intelligence in the next area of interest, “We see a lot of future disruptions in sustainability innovation happening at the boundaries of deep scientific research, digital technology like machine learning, AI and Blockchain, and cross-disciplinary approaches (intersection of chemistry, biology and physics)”
Ubuntoo is currently awaiting B Corporation’ Certification but Kini adds that it has not stopped the company to function on the same lines. “We are already operating as if we are a Benefit corporation but have not yet got the certification since we are at an early stage. The implication of being a Benefit Corporation is that we exist for the benefit of the environment, for our ecosystem and our employees first, and profits later,” he said.
We then asked him how Ubuntoo is different from other companies, he replied,” We do not accept advertising, nor do we allow innovators to pay to be listed. All innovations are listed on merit – based on whether they help the environment. Sometimes we commit errors of omission or commission, and that is where the wisdom of our community comes in, whose feedback helps us refine our database.”
Ubuntoo’s business model is based on subscription revenues from corporates while providing free access to experts and listed innovators. The Ubuntoo team includes over 20 resources spread across the world, coming from 5 continents.
Discussing the platform, he added, “Startups and innovators are usually invited to join our platform after we discover them through our research and run basic validation checks. We conduct interviews of the startups we list and run them past our in-house panel of experts. Now our community has started to recommend solutions to us too. We are still in our first year, but have already gathered a database of 1500 startups, laboratories, university projects, established company innovations and more. Of these we have listed a smaller subset on our platform. We continue to refine and expand the list based on new information that we get.”
On plastic as the biggest problem, Kini explained how companies should change their viewpoint to tackle any environmental issue.
“The solution to plastic pollution, as with other global environmental and social challenges will come through six interconnected things:
- Collaboration, not competition between companies and industries
- Long term policy framework by governments
- Awareness building and advocacy by NGO’s
- Innovation by startups, scientists, universities and entrepreneurs
- Patient capital from investors (5 – 10 year horizon)
- Behaviour change by consumers (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle)
He concluded the interview by saying that Ubuntoo is working to help some of our startups get funding from investors.