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Fighting climate change: This robotics startup snaps $4.5M seed funding to become the holy grail of recycling

San Francisco-based tech startup Glacier, combating climate change with AI-powered robotic waste technology has officially launched out of stealth and raised $4.5M in seed funding. 

The round was led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA), with participation by leaders in industry, sustainability, and technology, including former GE CEO Jeff Immelt, climate investor and former climate policymaker Sierra Peterson, and former Uber CPO Manik Gupta.

Building recycling robot

Glacier builds, as it claims to be ‘an industry-leading recycling robot–a combination of cutting-edge AI and robotics’ that sorts over 30 different item types. 

Currently, the $116B US recycling industry is urgently looking for innovation to address surging demand for recycled feedstock, as well as overcome major feedstock supply shortages caused by an ageing infrastructure and a dwindling labour pool. By increasing recycling rates, Glacier’s technology is also instrumental in the fight against climate change. This is more critical than ever, with the UN warning just earlier this month that humanity needs to act “now or never” to limit global warming.

“When people think about fighting climate change, recycling is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. But recycling is actually one of the only climate solutions that can deliver significant impact immediately, because all the necessary infrastructure either already exists or is emerging now, like our technology,” says Glacier cofounder Areeb Malik, a former Facebook software engineer.

Action against climate change

Recycling dramatically reduces carbon emissions by decreasing energy use in manufacturing, which is still primarily powered by fossil fuels. For example, recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy needed for manufacturing, recycling steel saves 70% of energy needed, and so on.

Unfortunately, half of recyclables in the US end up in landfill. This is in part because recycling facilities rely heavily on human sorting, and hiring difficulties have caused persistent, large-scale labor shortages. Many facilities are in full-blown crisis mode, under-staffed by as much as 50% with no end in sight.

Glacier is bridging this painful gap with the first-ever affordable, high-performing sortation robot, which will cost up to 60% less than other robots while matching or exceeding their performance and will be easy to install. Further, many recycling robots have a payback period of up to 10 years across hardware and retrofit costs. In contrast, Glacier’s robot can payback in as little as one year.

“Almost every facility is interested in robotic sorters, but they’ve assumed robots are out of reach because of high cost and inconsistent ROI. Customers are shocked when they learn what Glacier offers,” says cofounder Rebecca Hu, a former Bain & Co. consultant. “We’ve been overwhelmed by all the customer enthusiasm for our product.”

Founded in 2019 by Areeb Malik, an ex-software engineer from Facebook, and Rebecca Hu, who worked at Bain and Company – Glacier installed its first commercial robot at a large recycling facility in California in April this year. The robot is sorting eight target materials across two conveyor belts simultaneously–an extremely complex task that no other robot on the market can perform. More installations are under contract, and the company is planning to scale rapidly to meet soaring demand with the recent investment.

Beyond robotics..?

Further, the company is already leveraging its groundbreaking computer vision to power real-time waste intelligence, providing facilities and municipalities with in-depth insights into their waste stream composition, and identifying new opportunities for improved staffing and technology across the industry.

“Solving the recycling industry’s acute labor shortages with intelligent robotics and AI is a massive commercial opportunity but also an important step toward significantly reducing emissions and waste,” says Ann Bordetsky, partner at NEA. “We’re proud to back Glacier’s experienced and passionate team as they introduce automation and data intelligence to an essential industry that we all rely on every day.”

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