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ZenRobotics is a technology startup from Finland working in an area that many would easily overlook. The company is using artificial intelligence and machine vision to sort out recyclable material from garbage. There’s a lot of fantastic progress behind the concept already; they have a killer team, funding and paying customer that happens to be the largest environmental company in Europe. Let’s take a look at all this in more detail.

First off, the team. Get ready for this, ZenRobotics has 8 Phds of international caliber, as they themselves say. Now don’t get me wrong – they’re not fully academical and totally out of the startup way of thinking. On top of this, four of their employees have made technology exits to Nvidia and Google for example. In total the employees have published more than 1000 academical papers and they have 7 patents pending for their new technology. The company was founded in 2007 and has 20 employees currently.

Secondly, they’ve already secured one million euros in seed financing and are looking for 4 million euros in series A. The A round is expected to be used for finishing their pilot, hiring a COO, ensuring scalability of the product as well as selling ten of their products by the end 2012.

Thirdly, their client. ZenRobotics is working with Suez Sita, which is Europe’s largest environmental company handling waste. The plan of the relationship is to finish ZenRobotics’ product pilot and streamline their processes. Furthermore on the sales front, they have 20 agents covering 47 countries. In 2015 they aim to be doing hundreds of million euros in revenue. Ambitious, but very much doable.

After all this, you have to be asking – what exactly is it that ZenRobotics do?

Below is an image helping you better understand their solution. ZenRobotics delivers products to help sort out recyclable material from general waste with the help of robotics and machine vision.

So in essence, ZenRobotics ships 10 tons of machinery to the customer. The magic is in the software they develop, but the solution is combined into software and hardware – the artificial intelligence and the robot itself. Some might ask how is this a killer market? In the interview below, Jaakko Särelä shares with us how legislation, for example is helping ZenRobotics get rid of their competition. Below is an interview with Jaakko Särelä, CEO of ZenRobotics.

ArcticStartup (AS): What were the steps to founding ZenRobotics?

Jaakko Särelä (JS): For the past 20 years it has been the opinion of Dr Harri Valpola that neurobiology and machine learning are essentially the same: computers should be able to model the way the human brain processes information. The research stemming from this conviction matured into full productization when Dr Tuomas J. Lukka joined Valpola’s research group in 2006. For this, they enlisted the help of Jufo Peltomaa with whom Lukka had worked with at Hybrid Graphics Ltd. Lo and behold, ZenRobotics was born!

AS: Where did the idea for this come from?

JS: For the first year ZenRobotics was all about contacting potential industrial clients, and asking them what was their hardest problem (Ask the ZR management, the word “challenge” is so eighties) i.e. where they lost the most money. After contacting some 200–300 companies it became clear that the recognition and manipulation of odd-form objects was impossible with current automation systems – including robotics.

After the field hunt, ZR identified 6 different business fields where the said recognition and manipulation is crucial. Overall, recycling was judged the most promising. For example, a documentary in which a huge B52 bomber is put through an even more massive crusher and the resulting fist-sized particles are sorted manually by sad-looking Mexicans indicated a sore need for improvement.

AS: How did SITA SUEZ get interested in the product?

JS: The first installation was offered to 16 waste processing companies operating in Finland. All were interested. The most keen, and fastest mover was SITA Finland Ltd., a part of SUEZ Environnement, the largest environmental company in Europe. From the start, our co-operation with SITA Finland has been flowing and prompt. It is evident that SITA Finland understands and appreciates innovation.

AS: How does legislation support the selling of the product currently in Europe?

JS: A plethora of regulatory issues converge in the field of recycling. Already in 1975, the EU’s Waste Framework Directive did make manual waste sorting, the main competitor of ZenRobotics Recycler today,
illegal. We’re pretty much on the moral high ground, that is. The most interesting support besides the occupational health and worker protection legislation is afforded by the weight the EU and the U.S. place on the concept of Best available technology (BAT).

In the not so distant future, manual sorting will be rendered not only obsolete but its illegal status will also be enforced. The BAT principle will drive both local and international regulation to demand everyone use the most efficient technology available. That will be ours.

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