CEO Charles Yhap is making a smart waste receptacle that eases the headaches of sorting trash from recyclables and rising landfill costs.
Co-founders Tanner Cook and Yhap teamed to launch CleanRobotics in Pittsburgh before settling in Colorado in late 2016.
“The idea was really born out of frustration,” says Yhap. “We want to entirely redefine waste operations inside of buildings.”
One example: “If you go to Whole Foods, you get something from the hot bar, you eat it, and then on your way out, you want to throw it away. You’re confronted with an array of waste receptacles that you need a Ph.D to understand. To this day, I’m still not sure I’m doing it right.”
In response, Yhap and Cook embarked on the development of a robotic solution to the problem. “At the time, we saw a trend for AI and algorithms to become increasingly accessible, so we started working on it,” says Yhap. “What sealed the deal for us from a business-model point of view is when we realized how expensive traditional waste bins are.”
Denver International Airport, for example, uses a three-bin system that costs $3,000, he notes. As the airport has 250 of these stations, “They spend three-quarters of a million bucks on shiny metal tubes,” notes Yhap. “Outdoor bins are even more expensive. At those rates, we thought we could build a robot that costs about the same or slightly more.”
Debuting in 2019, the company’s TrashBot is the flagship product line. “It’s a system that uses artificial intelligence, robotics, and computer vision to detect waste as you throw it away,” says Yhap. “It robotically separates landfill from recycling from compost 300 percent more accurately than the public.”
In that context, CleanRobotics’ catalog of the TrashBot Standard, TrashBot Slim, and TrashBot Zero can represent savings for customers. “We’re getting overwhelming demand for TrashBot Zero, which can separate into three or four different waste streams,” says Yhap.
Other innovative features include “fullness indication” to alert custodians when a receptacle is nearing capacity, data collection for “an aggregated view of what front-of-house waste looks like,” and digital signage “to address specific contaminants in your waste stream,” says Yhap.
Target markets are areas where there’s a significant price difference between sending waste to a landfill and recycling it. “The minimum criteria on that front is a 4X difference between the price for a ton of landfill versus a ton of recycling, which unfortunately is not Colorado,” says Yhap. “Landfill in Colorado is really, really cheap.”
But it’s a different story in California, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. In Los Angeles, for example, it’s about 4.5X more expensive to send waste to the landfill. “A lot of these price differences are mandated in some way by regulators, and that’s in order to increase diversion from landfill,” says Yhap. “In Australia, for example, the price difference is like 1,000X. You get money back for recycling and you have to pay more than $1,000 for a ton of landfill.”
The company has shipped TrashBots to China, Singapore, Australia, India, the Middle East, adn the U.S. “It’s pretty global demand as it stands,” says Yhap.
Yhap says the move to Longmont was “a natural fit” that was informed by affordable industrial space, talent, and solid infrastructure, as well as the lifestyle. “There were a couple things the area had going for it,” he explains. “There was a pretty good existing talent pool, but it also seemed like there were folks from Silicon Valley moving here with strong technical skill sets, as well as other places.”
The full-time crew of three employees works with a team of about 20 contractors, says Yhap. Most manufacturing currently takes place in-house in Longmont. “As a result of the trade war and the uncertainty around that, we’ve transitioned quite a bit of our supply chain to the United States, where it’s just more stable,” says Yhap, noting that it now includes vendors in Colorado, California, and Pennsylvania. The company still sources some electronic components from Asia.
With an increasing emphasis on sustainability, Yhap sees a big opening in the market. “We’re looking to grow pretty aggressively this year,” he says. “Our revenues grew by 10X during COVID compared to 2019, which really surprised me.”
“The world wants to save itself,” he adds. “People want to do the right thing, they just need to know what that right thing is, and it needs to be easy to do.”
Challenges: A lack of domestic policies that make landfills a more expensive option compared to recycling and composting. “The United States is lagging,” says Yhap. “There is some pretty good movement at the state level and the municipal level in some pockets, but there is no cohesive national strategy, and I think that’s a problem.”
Opportunities: “To go to market, we’re targeting essential facilities, especially during COVID, so that’s hospitals and transportation hubs like airports and bus stations,” says Yhap.
Post-pandemic, he sees sports venues, convention centers, and colleges and universities as ripe markets for the TrashBot, as well as offices and corporate campuses, and shopping malls.
China, which instituted mandatory sorting in Shanghai in 2019, could be a big sales driver. “The central government has indicated they want to roll out mandatory waste-sorting laws across the country,” says Yhap.
Needs: Talent. Yhap says a senior software architect with experience in AI, computer vision, cloud-based architecture, and embedded systems is “a key hire.” CleanRobotics is also looking for manufacturing interns, he adds.
The company has also been vetting contract manufacturers to work with as the company ramps up production, adds Yhap. “They’re able to scale,” he explains. “We want to focus more on the technology and less on the manufacturing. We’d like to get to a place where we offload that entirely to a contract manufacturer, and work on product development, research and development, and selling.”