Just Undo It: Nike, NASA partner on waste innovation challenge

Two Steps Forward

Just Undo It: Nike, NASA partner on waste innovation challenge

Nike is joining with NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of State to identify 10 “game changing” innovations that transform waste systems in both developed and developing countries. It’s a group of seemingly strange bedfellows — at least until you understand the motives behind their madness.

The effort is the fourth in a series of efforts by Launch, a nonprofit whose mission is to “identify and support the innovative work poised to contribute to a sustainable future and accelerate solutions to meet urgent challenges facing our society.” That may sound like so many other groups — business plan competitions, cleantech accelerators, angel investment groups, and the like — but this one’s a bit different: the 10 winners don’t get cash or other prizes, but rather the chance to engage in a collaborative process with some of the world’s smartest and most connected people.

The goal of the LAUNCH: Beyond Waste challenge is to identify companies and organizations that have innovative designs for zero waste solutions, waste elimination, waste transformation, and waste mitigation technologies, “as well as waste reduction-focused education, business, and financial strategies that have the potential to reduce and/or eliminate waste at a household, community, office building, campus, or industrial level,” according to the program overview (download – PDF).

The 10 winners will travel to a three-day forum in Pasadena, Calif., July 18-22, where they will go through an intensive collaborative process with a diverse group of high-level leaders across a spectrum of expertise to identify the key challenges and opportunities for taking their companies and technologies to market.

“Launch was designed from the offset to be not just another sustainability forum,” Victor Friedberg, the organization’s executive director, told me recently. One reason, he says, is that the forum is not the end of the process, but the beginning of an engagement for each of the 10 winning innovators. At the July forum, a structured, collaborative process will result in an Accelerator Action Plan for each venture, which will become the basis of a six-month process in which Launch creates an ecosystem of “council members” that work with the innovators to help them on their path to success.

The Beyond Waste Challenge is Launch’s fourth such efforts since 2010; the previous three challenges covered water, health, and energy. I asked Friedberg, who previously ran NextFest, the global showcase of innovation produced annually by WIRED Magazine, to describe some of the fruits of those labors.

He told me of Gram Power, a company out of UC Berkeley that participated in last November’s LAUNCH: Energy challenge. The company has created a rechargeable battery unit that can be used in off-the-grid communities in India and other countries. Gram Power is half-way through its six-month engagement with Launch’s council members. Friedberg says that already, the council has found an investment opportunity to get the company formed in India, and to set up test sites to prove technology and market demand. One of the council members even made a direct investment. “They’re off and running,” he says.

I was curious about the four organizational partners — Nike and the three federal agencies — and what they're roles are. According to Friedberg, NASA was first — “they’re very interested in looking at sustainability, being part of that conversation. A group of us started a conversation with NASA about what was going to become Launch. NASA was founding partner, and we built from there. Each of the four has a different objective and purpose for their engagement with Launch, but collectively their mission is to showcase and support transformative innovations that can address global challenges.”

Launch’s website describes how each of the four partners aims to benefit from the waste challenge:

  • US AID aims to address developing world waste challenges, reaching Base of the Pyramid populations through scalable technologies or “behavior change/communication program models.”
  • NASA aims to accelerate efforts to deploy advanced systems and components in space produced through green engineering practices to reduce mass, decrease power consumption, and design for zero waste. An additional goal is to eliminate or mitigate orbital debris.
  • The State Department aims to contribute to more effective waste management practices for the health and well-being of global citizens and the environment, “thereby helping to alleviate conflicts that stem from resource inequality and poverty.”
  • And Nike aims to find solutions that contribute to the greater efficiency, sustainability and stability of waste elimination, reduction and mitigation management systems across global supply chains.

I wasn’t able to talk to Nike in time for this post, but it’s well documented that the company has long been sprinting down a path of innovation in the design, manufacturing, supply chain and end of life of its products. (See here for the company’s description of its strategy and practices, and here for a video of my interview with Hannah Jones, Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business & Innovation, at the 2011 GreenBiz Innovation Forum.) “Launch waste is a great program for them specifically,” says Friedberg. “It speaks to a topline issue that Nike is interested in.”

It will be interesting to see how Launch breaks through the barriers of design, manufacturing, distribution, recycling, and all the other parts of the system that tend to reduce incentives for companies to create less wasteful or waste-free products. And, of course, it’s not just companies: the materials cycle begins at the mine, forest, and well and goes all the way to the landfill — or, hopefully, some higher-value disposition. All parts of the system will need to be engaged to create the kinds of nonincremental breakthroughs Friedberg and his colleagues are seeking.

But that’s exactly what I find compelling about Launch. “We’re looking for truly transformative, inspired, creative, out-of-the-box companies and organizations that might otherwise not get attention because they have a higher risk portfolio, or because a lot of different components have to come together in order to get them into the market,” says Friedberg. “We work very diligently and passionately with each of these innovators to make the strategies and opportunities move from being a brainstorm to a reality.”

That’s a recipe for success, if ever I saw one.