No-one knows where ideas really come from, but often the ‘lightbulb’ moment arrives in response to a nagging problem that the budding inventor’s brain wants to fix.
This was certainly the case for US entrepreneur Jim Poss, pictured, whose Bigbelly solar-powered bins have gone from a prototype hand-built at his home to thousands being sold in 47 countries around the world. He has not stopped there – his latest venture, Modifi, could see millions upon millions of unused mobile phones being repurposed and diverted from landfill.
Poss’s achievements have won him numerous accolades, including being named as a World Economic Forum technology pioneer and as one of Business Week magazine’s most promising social entrepreneurs.
His flash of inspiration for the Bigbelly refuse compactor came on “one beautiful morning” in Boston, Massachusetts, around 17 years ago and he brings back that moment vividly.
“I was walking down the street, and this garbage truck was picking up overflowing garbage bins,” he says. “It would start up and a giant plume of smoke would come out of the stack. I’m walking along watching this as they were going about the same speed I was. They would go, stop, pick up the trash and then go again. This was really in my face, insulting me over and over again – five times on the same block.
“What a huge waste – a giant truck spewing out smoke every hundred feet. That’s as inefficient as you get.
“This thing hit my head: you should compact the trash at every bin, then you’d need fewer garbage trucks. I didn’t know what the numbers were, but I thought, ‘I bet you could do that with solar power.’
“Some statistics jumped off the page. When I started looking at the waste industry I found that garbage trucks in the US burn a billion gallons of gas [petrol] every year, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill into the atmosphere every four days. I had to do something about it.”
And so the basis for a multi-million dollar company was born. But first, Poss had to learn how to put his idea into action. In 2000, following a recession and the burst of the ‘tech bubble’, he signed up to Babson College business school in Massachusetts, which is renowned for its entrepreneurship programme. As part of the course, students start a business in their second year and Poss considered three business plans based on environmental technology.
“One business plan was for geothermal energy, one was offshore windmill energy and one was the solar-powered trash compactor,” he says. “I made a marketing sheet out of each one and pitched them at everyone I could. Overwhelmingly, people liked the Bigbelly; it just made sense. It was also something that was achievable for me – I was fresh out of business school with student loans and no money. Creating a £1bn geothermal plant was far out of my reach.
“I went to the ‘want’ ads and bought a used trash compactor and modified it. That was my first Bigbelly. I got used to cleaning trash.”
So what is the reality behind taking an idea and then making money out of it?
“It’s a long, hard road. I tried to raise money, without success, for a year and a half. I entered a business plan competition and won it. In the first three years I raised maybe $100,000- $150,000. It was not glamorous – we were hand-making these machines and trying to get them to work. We went through several funding rounds and a partnership with the largest waste management company in the US. It was a lot of development; it’s not easy to make a piece of hardware that is durable, efficient and well made.”
The company was finally launched in 2003, around five years after Poss witnessed the pollution incident in Boston. The idea persisted, he says, because it is “hard not to be reminded of it every day – you drive anywhere and you get stuck behind a garbage truck”.
After 11 years at the company full time, Poss stepped back as chief executive and now sits on the board. The product is in its fifth generation and efficient enough to run in the often cloud-covered UK as well as Alaska and Sweden.
“The company is doing great, with record-setting quarters every quarter,” he enthuses. “There is innovation, a great team and a great board – we’re making a lot of progress.
“We had a couple of partners in the UK, some worked, some didn’t. Our distributor there now is doing very well, Egbert Taylor. The UK and Europe in general has high gas and labour prices added to municipal financial shortages. There is a lot of pressure on the system to become more efficient and that’s really what we are about.
“It is a fabulous efficiency tool for getting 8:1 reduction in collections and vastly improving the economics of picking up waste.”
The roots of Bigbelly’s success run deep. One of Poss’s favourite mantras is “luck favours the prepared”, and his preparations in environmental entrepreneurship can be traced back to 1992 and the influence of a green-minded teacher at his North Carolina high school. As a result he chose to pursue environmental science and went on to study how a landfill is sited.
Another inspiration was the pollution of North Carolina’s Neuse river by pig waste following heavy rain: “I thought, by God, this is complex and interesting. And, most importantly, that if I did this for a living I would feel good about what I do.”
With an anger at needless pollution firmly embedded in his psyche, Poss’s career in the1990s found him working on electric vehicles, such as Zamboni ice resurfacing machines, as well as cars and buses. This involved choosing the motors, gear ratios and battery packs: “Had I not had that job, I’m pretty sure I would not have come up with Bigbelly.”
It is surprising, therefore, to hear Poss say he thinks there are no qualifications needed in order to become an inventor and entrepreneur: “You don’t need any education to get lucky but, if you have a background in a particular segment, you’re probably in a better position to innovate. I have a background in environmental science, I have a hands-on engineering background and I have an MBA. Without those things I would not have had the insight or the ability to execute on that insight to make a business out of it.”
Poss also teaches a general entrepreneur class. He advises on how to come up with a concise business plan that articulates a problem, proposes a solution that is 10 times better than what already exists and how to make that solution scalable worldwide.
“It’s really the hard lessons of entrepreneurship: how to raise money, manage people and set up your company for success. I take a lot of cues from the companies I admire – and from companies I don’t admire and have failed.”
One of Bigbelly’s strengths is its connectivity, which allows businesses to analyse bin fill levels and collection routes to reduce the amount of time vehicles spend on the road. This ‘internet of things’ (IoT) approach was instrumental in leading Poss to launch what could be a game-changing company, Modifi.
“I had all this experience with Bigbelly and was [called] the father of the ‘internet of trash’,” says Poss. “When I look at Modifi, I would not have put two and two together to form a company if I had not been exposed to my environmental education, my business background and my experience at Bigbelly.”
In a nutshell, Modifi takes unwanted mobile phones and uses their sensors and processing power for an almost limitless number of new uses. For instance, the company is currently carrying out trials with a waste collection firm to provide tracking, GPS and a confirmation picture of every stop. Existing systems can do this, but why manufacture something new when you don’t need to?
“We can see exactly where the guys were at a given time, look at average speed and then they never have these feuds over whether a bin was picked up or whether it was overflowing. Other telematics companies have solutions that are similar, but they costs hundreds of dollars, plus $30 [£24] a month. We’re doing the same for a couple of dozen dollars plus $9 a month.”
Poss has put together a team, sourced seed funding and built the ‘back-end’ databases. The testing phase is looking at a range of applications including security systems, logistics and safety monitoring. As with Bigbelly, Modifi has a vivid genesis story.
“My five-year-old was in the bath one day and he said, ‘daddy, can you wind up this toy?’ I had my mobile phone in my pocket and I reached over and the phone went into the drink. I didn’t want to buy another $700 phone, so I looked around on eBay and found a used phone that was really cheap. And it hit me that this thing has got a processor that’s smarter than the Bigbelly and all these sensors built in.
“It’s got GPS, microphones, two cameras, an accelerometer, magnetometer, light sensor and proximity sensor. It is an amazing piece of equipment. I got it for $50 or $60, and I thought that we should turn these into IoT devices.
“I learned there were a billion idle smartphones in the US, just sitting there. Everybody I talked to had three or four and didn’t know what to do with them. So I found supply lines where I could buy tens of thousands of phones a week easily. There are several hundred million smartphones every year that become idle, for no other reason than there is a new model with more features. Even three-year-old models are really powerful.”
A report by tech firm Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion connected devices around the world by 2020. In the UK people are sitting on more than 76.8 million unused mobiles worth £9.4bn, according to research from CompareMyMobile.com. The question is, will Modifi make a dent in the number being discarded?
“If we’re successful, it will, absolutely,” says Poss. “If we’re going to have a dedicated baby monitor, for instance, we would have to buy, consume and discard billions of devices. The smartphone is a perfect solution to this problem, with a back end that is versatile [enough] to transform them into any one of those devices. Just on price alone, we out-compete all these dedicated devices.
“It is a double-whammy – you’re taking an old smartphone and giving it a new life, and you’re preventing somebody from having to waste their money on some new low-volume expensive device.”
Poss sees Modifi as having the potential and flexibility to solve problems in ways he “couldn’t have imagined”. Already he has been approached with an idea to use the system to help predict earthquakes.
“We want to help people monitor drinking water wells in Africa and all sorts of things. We want to open up the system so that anyone in the world can use the app to gain insight and make their lives safer or more efficient and better in some way, and more profitable. This is going to be a huge company and a very important one. Not only for the recycling aspects, but for the democratisation of access to data.”
Bigbelly in the UK
Bigbelly bins use solar power to compact waste and inform collection crews when they are ready to be emptied. The company claims the bins can reduce operating costs by 70-80%. In 2015 the Egbert Taylor Group took over Bigbelly sales and operations in the UK.
Worldwide there are around 30,000 Bigbelly bins, 1,500 of which are now in the UK. More than 50 UK local authorities use Bigbelly and a similar number are carrying out trials.
Rugby Borough Council replaced 56 town centre litter bins that were emptied two to three times a day with 23 Bigbelly stations. The number of collections were slashed by 97%, from more than 51,000 a year to around 1,500.
John Smith, Egbert Taylor southern area business manager, says: “A lot of authorities have already done their frontline cuts, so the bins are helping them to do the work they did before by taking the load off the people they have got left – using the bins to get that time back.
“We have data now from most locations where bins are used: rural, urban, universities and NHS. We have a lot of case studies. People do want to check that it does what it says on the tin.”