Dr. Elias Willemse is the co-founder and CTO at Waste Labs, a deep tech startup that uses AI to modernise waste management and recycling. He was previously a research fellow at SUTD and a lecturer at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, where he grew up exposed to the repercussions of the poor delivery of municipal services. Motivated to make a difference, he made the leap from academia to entrepreneurship by joining Entrepreneur First in Singapore. He met his co-founder and together, they created Waste Labs to solve the problem of poor waste management in cities. Elias holds the belief that more scientists and researchers should take the same plunge as he did and become entrepreneurs to solve problems that they are passionate about.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What piqued your interest in waste management? Tell me about growing up in South Africa and how that interest emerged.
Elias Willemse (EW): In South Africa, waste management is different depending on where you’re from. In rich areas, waste is collected very well and the areas are clean. In dirty areas, it’s not collected at all. Growing up in that setting, you’re always aware of that.
Finishing my studies, I thought, “What can I do to use my skills and what I studied to try and make an impact in my country?” Then, looking into waste management, I saw how much money was being spent on collecting waste and driving it to dump sites. For a city of Singapore’s size, it’s easily USD 100 million. This is money that could be spent on building schools or hospitals, especially in developing countries where the government doesn’t have a lot of money. Then my obsession started, about how I can help cities to collect waste better and spend less money.
Kr: How was building your own deep tech company, Waste Labs, coming from academia? What is Waste Labs?
EW: Waste Labs uses artificial intelligence to help cities and private waste collection companies better manage their collection resources. We help them figure out how many trucks they need, how they should schedule their collection systems, where they should put bins — all of this so that they spend the least amount of money.
In academia, I developed these algorithms from a technical perspective. That was good but I didn’t feel like I had an impact. That was what I was craving when I started Waste Labs a year ago, the desire to make a real difference. I realized that I could start my own company using my technical skills and then try and do something on the ground with real people and clients. It’s been an incredible journey so far. It’s not easy, but it is extremely rewarding.
Kr: In terms of waste management, how is AI used for logistics allocation?
EW: We take the problem of designing the collection system and turn it into a mathematical problem. We have algorithms that solve it, turning into a “solve x”. Once you solve x, you have the solution. One of the specific things we look at is in what sequence should one visit their different customers that they need to collect waste from. Again, turning that into a mathematical problem, we have algorithms solve it. We take the solution to the collector and tell them about the optimal sequence to use. They typically save on the number of trucks and personnel they need for collection.
Kr: Is there an example of a company you currently work with that is using Waste Labs effectively?
EW: Currently, we’re working with Alba WH, a private waste collection company in Singapore. We’ve been helping them extensively with resource planning, telling them exactly how many collection vehicles and bins they need to service areas within Singapore. We’ve helped them with electronic waste collection too. Where do you put your electronic waste collection bins so that as many people have access to them as possible? How do you schedule your logistics around them? How many trucks do you need to collect waste from all the different logistics systems that you have? We’ve also helping with food waste in Hong Kong. It’s the same problem. How do you take what we’re throwing away and effectively process it?
Kr: Is there anything that you found surprising in your findings?
EW: What’s still surprising to me is how much it costs, whether it’s in Singapore or Hong Kong. It’s the sheer complexity and cost of collecting what we’re throwing away, and taking it to processing plants. This seems to be the case everywhere.
Kr: How do you navigate different countries’ regulations when it comes to waste?
EW: I’m not quite qualified to answer that. We typically come in at the end of the process. Our clients deal with the regulations. What we have seen is that regulations are making waste processing a lot more complex. When you have regulation requiring electronic waste to be collected separately, then collection becomes more complex, and waste management becomes more expensive. This is where we believe that deeptech will play a big influence. The traditional way of taking care of waste isn’t going to work for much longer because of regulations. You need to look at your collection systems more intelligently before designing them.
Kr: How do you see waste disposal and management becoming more sustainable?
EW: A lot more trash is not going to go to landfills. It’s going to be recycled into different recycling streams. Waste is going to become more complex. Another change that will happen, and is already happening, is that waste producers are going to have to start paying more for the waste they generate. Presently, we’re not paying the true price of how much it costs to treat waste. Once that happens, people will start to be more inclined to recycle and take care of their waste.
Kr: How was it becoming an entrepreneur and eventually CTO of this company?
EW: It’s a massive learning curve. Entrepreneur First exposes academics to entrepreneurship, giving them a good launchpad. Within three months, they teach you the basics of entrepreneurship, and then you give it a go and try to start a company. It’s not as structured as academia, but the impact you can have is so much bigger.
As a former academic, two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me. Luckily, Entrepreneur First believes in academics and their capabilities. A lot of academics would be surprised what they’re capable of if they put themselves in a situation of trying to build their own company.
Kr: What learnings from your research-based work are you bringing into entrepreneurship?
EW: My PhD research revolved around AI algorithms with waste management. I took it all and figured out a way to productize it and turn it into a usable product for our clients. On the softer side, it’s the ability to master complex things with patience. That’s something you learn in academia. It’s this ability to be patient and grind through solving difficult problems.
Kr: Where do you see Waste Labs in five to ten years?
EW: Our dream is to be global in ten years’ time to be the leading analytics and AI provider to waste and recycling companies around the world. We’re currently in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia. These tools have a need everywhere. We want to make as big of an impact as we possibly can using the skills that we have.
Kr: There are people who don’t care much about trash or their impact on the earth — what would you say to them?
EW: Every time you throw a piece of paper on the ground, you’re literally preventing the government from building a school or building a hospital. You’re not throwing away just trash, you’re throwing away money.
Somebody’s going to have to pay that someday. It might be your children. It could be sooner than that, because the government could have used that money on something other than collecting your trash. This is money that’s being thrown away, and it’s going to cost you. It’s going to cost everybody.