Google the term "circular economy," and the top search results are a bunch of definitions. The circular economy is still nascent — think tank Circle Economy argues that the world is less than 9 percent circular because only 8.6 percent of the materials extracted from the earth are reused — but a growing number of people and companies are establishing systems to move away from a linear economy.
Google is one such company. On 3 October it announced a three-month circular economy accelerator program for Seed to Series A startups and NGOs that are using technology to solve circularity challenges — including reuse, refill, recycling, composting, fashion, food, safe and circular materials and the built environment — in the U.S. and Asia Pacific region.
Google's tools at the service of the circular transition
Applications for the accelerator open on 3 October and will be accepted until November. The tech giant will pick 10 to 15 startups and NGOs to participate. Those chosen will receive equity-free support from Google during the program’s 10 weeks, access to $200,000 of worth of Google Cloud credits and mentorship. At the end of the program, there will be a demo day where each participant will pitch to Google’s VC network.
The accelerator, set to start in February, aligns with Google’s 2030 goal of "maximizing [its] reuse of finite resources across its operations, products and supply chains — while empowering others to do the same." The company actually unveiled this plan at Circularity, GreenBiz Group’s circular economy conference, in 2019.
Back then, it set a series of subgoals and approaches to achieve its 2030 commitment, modeled after the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s framework: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and promoting healthy and safe materials.
"Fundamentally we're focused on decoupling economic growth from the consumption and disposal of finite resources," said Mike Werner, lead for the circular economy at Google, discussing the motivation for the accelerator. "An additional interest for us in tackling the circular economy is that it offers a really critical pathway to mitigating climate change [and transitioning] to a low-carbon economy, because recycled and reused resources have lower carbon footprints."
Estee Cheng, leading the accelerator, is managing director for gTech sustainability at Google. The wider gTech team supports the company’s advertising products and 50-plus other products in areas such as Maps, Pixel, Photos, Google Play Store. Cheng and her team have been working to integrate circular economy-enabling information into its offerings.
For example, it launched tools within Google Maps and Search to make it easier to find accurate recycling information around the world. And over the last two years, the technology company has partnered with the United Nations to help build a machine learning model to understand litter on streets in Indonesia and Thailand.
As the gTech sustainability team has worked on circular economy projects, Cheng said she noticed that there were innovations and budding startups trying to tackle issues in the space.
So, the team started to ask: "How do we bring them all together and give them what Google is best at: machine learning cloud expertise and geospatial knowledge? How can we empower and help them accelerate their solutions to come on to the market as quickly as possible?"
Enabling a circular economy ecosystem
The new circular economy accelerator builds on the success of the company’s previous climate change accelerators and impact challenges. Google has also run non-climate focused accelerators. All told, there have been 19 of them, and the more than 1,000 participants have raised over $22 billion since attending an accelerator program, according to Cheng.
Both Werner and Cheng have served as advisers on previous programs. Cheng said a key learning from those is that when the theme is too broad, it can be hard for the participants to relate to each other. "Somebody who's solving for the circular economy is very different from somebody who's solving for EVs and renewable energy," she said. "Bringing all the circular-minded people together is one of the key reasons why we're doing a specific sub-themed accelerator within sustainability".
For the accelerator’s mentorship component, participants will be able to connect with people who have expertise in various parts of the circular economy. Here’s a small sample of the people who will serve as mentors: Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund; Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute; Sarah Dearman, chief innovation officer at The Recycling Partnership; and John Warner, founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. Suz Okie, GreenBiz director of design strategy and senior analyst for the circular economy, is also on the mentor roster.
The mentor list is long — more than 35 strong — and Google expects it to grow as it gets to know each startup and NGO’s needs.
"Our primary objective is to help enable them and make them feel like they got a lot from Google, in order to kind of bring their solutions to life," Cheng said. "Just having Google's support and branding of being part of this accelerator gives them much more exposure when it comes to fundraising and connecting to partners."
Once the accelerator wraps up in May, Google hopes to be able to say that the program contributed to enabling a circular economy ecosystem and the success of the participants.