When BASF and its customer and fellow Sustainable Brands Corporate Member, Stanley Black & Decker, realized they had similar interest in recycling technologies for plastics and battery materials, they decided to launch an innovation challenge.
Along with being a leader in sustainable chemistry and evaluating its entire portfolio of products to ensure they add value to society, BASF is also on a mission to achieve carbon-neutral growth through 2030. Recognizing the potential of circularity to help with this, the company began to focus on disrupting its value chains to enable a circular economy — but it also recognized that doing so is not a one-company job.
Last year at SB’19 Detroit, BASF announced the **Greentown Labs Circularity Challenge**, a collaborative effort with Greentown Labs and BASF’s customer and fellow Sustainable Brands Corporate Member, Stanley Black & Decker (SB&D). To follow up with the progress of the program, we recently spoke with Bernhard von Vacano, BASF’s Global Head of Scouting and Incubation, Advanced Materials & Systems Research; along with stakeholders at SB&D and Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech startup incubator in North America, to learn more. von Vacano told us that BASF was eager to explore circular solutions to disrupt the plastics, energy storage and recycling value chains, and had already partnered with Greentown Labs on various projects. At the same time, BASF was also in conversations with Stanley Black & Decker about sustainable strategies; the two companies quickly saw alignment in their mutual interest to find advanced recycling technologies for plastics and battery materials; and launching digital platforms that enable new, circular business models — and they connected both conversations to launch an innovation challenge.
As a leading manufacturer of industrial tools and household hardware and provider of security products — and a customer of BASF — Stanley Black & Decker has a similar mindset when it comes to enabling brands to be sustainable and add value to society. For BASF, a B2B company enabling its customers to be more sustainable through leading-edge materials and technology, having a customer like SB&D was a great fit — instead of bilateral supplier conversations, it enabled a holistic, multi-stakeholder approach that enabled both companies to go further.
The Circularity Challenge is not the first time big brands such as BASF and SB&D have turned to startups to find solutions; many others — including IKEA, Levi Strauss, Unilever, Microsoft and Danone, to name a few — have mentored sustainable startups to foster their innovation potential. However, it’s not easy to wrangle hundreds of startups and choose the right ones to work with, and that’s where Greentown Labs came into play. Together, the three organizations launched the Circularity Challenge — the latest iteration of Greentown Launch, Greentown Labs’ flagship corporate partnership accelerator, that enabled BASF and SB&D to mobilize the cleantech ecosystem to advance their sustainability goals, super-charge their external innovation strategies, and foster meaningful partnerships with industry-disrupting startups.
The Greentown Labs Circularity Challenge revolved around plastics, batteries and digital innovation; and was co-developed with BASF and SB&D to maximize overlap in interest, influence and desire to create impact. Ideally, innovations from the startup community would help fill in gaps and create circularity opportunities in the two companies’ common value chains. Captured in an overarching RFP that enumerated specific areas of interest within the three themes, categories for the Circularity Challenge consisted of:
Plastics — advanced recycling technologies, novel designs, and energy-efficient processes for depolymerization (including enzymes), pyrolysis or gasification to recover building blocks;
Batteries — new business models to improve the collection of batteries/cells after initial use; ways to optimize recycling of battery materials — including valuable metals such as cobalt, nickel, lithium, etc.; and new batteries that can be reused, repurposed or recycled more often and more cost-effectively;
Digital tools — digital platforms that enable new business models in circular economy, tools that help simulate and predict recyclability and guide designs, and technologies that support tracking and reporting of value streams.
The Circularity Challenge attracted 98 submissions, with 10 companies selected to pitch to BASF and SB&D. Ultimately, five startups (Circularise, Corumat, American Battery Metals Corporation, Interface Polymers and Nexus Fuels) were selected to participate in the program. As participants in the Circularity Challenge, these five startups received mentorship from BASF and SB&D; curriculum, connections, and mentorship from Greentown Labs’ ecosystem; and $25,000 in non-dilutive grant funding, along with potential partnership and/or investment from BASF by the end of the program.
According to Katherine Geusz, Director of Programs at Greentown Labs, the startups were evaluated and selected for the program based on their potential to advance a circular economy; and to partner with BASF and Stanley Black & Decker in a concrete way, as well as upon the general promise of their team and technology. Geusz said each of the five Circularity Challenge winners made tangible progress toward a partnership outcome during the program. Collaborations took the form of material transfers, testing, a pilot project and a purchase order. The program also helped one startup to secure additional private investment, and another to penetrate the US market.
“Stanley Black & Decker is grateful to partner with Greentown Labs and BASF in sponsoring the Circularity Challenge,” said SB&D’s Chief Technology Officer, Mark Maybury. “We are excited about the innovations in plastics, energy storage and recycling that promise to accelerate solutions for our businesses, customers and the broader innovation ecosystem toward a more circular future. We were delighted with the rapid progress from this impressive group of purposefully focused entrepreneurs.”
Thanks to the success of the Circularity Challenge, BASF and SB&D have continued to work together — including setting up a CTO/President-level meeting to further company-to-company innovation activities. BASF is also looking into replicating the Challenge format in other regions, with slight variations of the topic.
When companies are trying to solve these types of complex issues, it’s vital to bring all the right stakeholders to the table — from the value chain to regulatory bodies, and from customers to suppliers — in order to find holistic and creative solutions.
“At Greentown Labs, we believe partnerships are paramount to tackling the climate transition and we’ve been fortunate to have BASF as a partner in our climate action efforts since 2017,” said Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs. “We’re proud of the many successful outcomes and collaborations that resulted from the Circularity Challenge and remain eager to see how the startups’ relationships with BASF and Stanley Black & Decker continue to develop in the years to come. We know an essential element of fostering partnerships between early-stage entrepreneurs and industry-leading corporations is the corporations’ forward-thinking approach to sustainability. Fortunately, BASF and Stanley Black & Decker are leading examples of organizations with bold climate action goals and commitments to building a more sustainable, livable future for all.”