PHILIPPA ROBERTS – IN IT TO BINIT!
It can sometimes be a little daunting in my line of work when I meet truly excellent people. I have had the pleasure since becoming Editor of Grow of meeting some absolutely incredible humans. Intelligent and innovative. Successful and selfless. Humble and hilarious.
Something I have realised though is that, in almost every case, they are very real and normal people. Yes, you occasionally come across the odd ego here and the occasional delusion of grandeur there but, for the most part, those making a difference in our city are also really nice people. Philippa Roberts, Co-Founder and CEO of Binit (an environmental tech start-up), is just such a person.
Philippa moved to Devon from Herefordshire in 2015 with her long-time partner Rachel and their son Magnus who was a baby at the time. They moved down due to Rachel securing a role down here, so Philippa became full-time carer to Magnus whilst also running Low and Behold, her award-winning environmental consultancy.
BINIT IS BORN
Specialising in all things ‘circular economy’ and water, Philippa has amassed over twenty years’ industry experience and has a solid track record in the world of waste management. However, she lost patience with the somewhat stagnant industry and explained to me,
“I just got fed up, having worked for two decades in the same industry and not really seen much change. I woke up one morning and decided that, rather than being annoyed about the problems, I had to be part of the solution. The needs of the market had changed significantly in the last twenty years, but the service of most waste management firms really hadn’t. Everything was still geared around what is easiest for the waste companies, not their customers. And, so Binit was born.”
Early on in her time in Devon, Philippa met with Joe Pearce (Head of Business Support at SETsquared, the Innovation Centre at the University of Exeter) and he started to tell her how amazing an ecosystem Exeter had for nurturing young tech start-ups and collaborative businesses. Naturally, Philippa’s ears pricked up.
As a result of that conversation, Binit went on to become a part of the first cohort of start-ups on the Exeter City Futures Velocities Programme. They went through the ‘Nurture’ stage and the ‘Accelerate’ stage of the programme before receiving investment from Oxygen House. Philippa expanded,
“That was absolutely crucial as the twelve-week Nurture stage of the process meant that I could afford to roll back my day job as a consultant and explore whether there was a true business opportunity within Binit. I’ll always be grateful for the investment and incubation-type experience that the Velocities programme offered us. I don’t think we’d be here now as a business if we hadn’t had that opportunity.”
“I have never lived or worked anywhere quite like Exeter in that regard. It is so collaborative and open as a business community, with so many people willing and interested to work together. Compare that to, say, London where it is so cut-throat and every man or woman is looking out for themselves, and making this our permanent base to live and work has been a real pleasure.”
CHALLENGING THE INDUSTRY
But how can tech be harnessed in the waste industry, I hear you say? Well, Binit have taken a unique and powerful approach to waste management which is completely based around data. For example, they initially developed an app for taking pictures of litter and geo-tagging them to build an accurate picture of where waste actually is in Exeter. It is much easier to stop the scarily simple and short journey of that litter moving from city streets to nearby beaches, where it can then enter the water supply. But in doing this, they realised that loads of litter in the city came from poor trade waste services.
Binit have, more recently, launched a customer-centric app which scans the unique QR code on each bin and the user is able to book extra collections, tell Binit how full the bin is or report a problem. In essence, in real time, Binit are using data to build a more accurate picture of the actual waste needs of Exeter. Moreover, they are testing the use of sensors within their bins to automate and communicate with that app and they are currently working on prototypes of ‘smart bins’ which are set to launch to market in the coming years. Philippa commented,
“I’m not sure how much time you spend looking at wheelie bins, but they are really poorly designed and haven’t really changed in a good long time. For someone like me – a five foot five, able bodied and relatively fit woman – loading up a wheelie bin is really hard. The lid is at head and shoulder height, it is a real effort to lift waste high enough to place into the bin and, when you do manage it, you usually get a splash of ‘bin juice’ to the face for good measure.”
“If you really think about it, maybe the bin itself needs redesigning. I mean, how are you meant to expect people to put things in the right bins, at the right times, if the actual process is so difficult and messy?”
I wondered where Philippa’s passion for the environment came from and she explained,
“I didn’t get into Uni first time so, on somewhat of a forced gap year, I worked on a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica. I saw first-hand the impact of plastic waste on the ocean and this is where my passion for eliminating marine litter came from – way before the recent wave of interest and activity about it.”
SOLUTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Putting her on the spot a little, I asked Philippa a very grand question…how can we sort out the waste creation and waste management problems of the world? Clearly, no one person has the entire answer to that question but, after thinking for a second, Philippa replied,
“Honestly, I believe that future solutions to waste issues centre around gathering better data. There is currently no central government standard for the management of commercial waste and individual companies have no requirement to report on their handling of their waste, so we don’t really know what businesses throw away or recycle.”
“Also, the main metric used to value waste within our industry is weight, which is a really poor choice of measure. It means that waste management firms tend to value glass, food waste and other heavier types of waste, whereas plastic is often forgotten about or disposed of poorly. Perhaps if the metrics and measures of our industry were more informed and based on real-time data, we would have a much greater handle on what, when and where things were being discarded and recycled.”
It also struck me as we were talking that, particularly with the recent government announcement of the target to make the UK carbon-neutral by 2050, that there will have to be government legislation to facilitate that sort of behavioural change. Philippa agreed,
“I think that might be the only large-scale solution. This is an issue that requires both a top-down and a bottom-up response. Also, looking at circular economy business models – for example, renting bins rather than buying them – would ensure that people get the most out of their waste management products, removing the inherent obsolescence of buying a bin, then replacing it a few years down the line. There are all sorts of ideas and possible gains to be had in the coming years for people in our industry.”
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Philippa what the future held for her and Binit. She responded,
“We are working tirelessly to make a commercially viable, high-impact business which finds solutions to some of the waste issues that are so rife in our society, builds a much more accurate data picture of waste management needs in the area and reduces heavy vehicle movements in our medieval city centre. Binit is so much more than a business. It is a passion and a value-based project. We are determined to make it work and play our part in the amazing ecosystem of data, tech and environmental start-ups here in Exeter. And with ambitious investment targets for the next year, we’re looking to execute a fast-growth expansion plan which would see us treble in size within the next twelve months.”
With littering and fly-tipping alone costing the UK £1bn per year to clear up, let alone the environmental and social effects of poor waste management, it is clear that we need forward-thinking firms such as Binit in our business community. Philippa left me with this gem of a thought…
“I think that waste management is like a mosquito. If you think that doing something small doesn’t have an impact, then try spending a night in a room with just one mosquito!”
To follow the inspiring and exciting Binit journey, follow @binituk on Twitter
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook