L-R; Roger Kim and Sean Sun

L-R; Roger Kim and Sean Gwon

Meet Ecube Labs, a Korean startup run by CEO Sean Gwon that has developed various products that help to increase productivity and reduce costs within the waste management industry.

Its products include a solar-powered compaction bin that calculates how full the containers are, then sends the information to waste collectors. Ecube Labs also makes a sensor that can be attached to bins and an online platform that lets customers analyse data from the sensors and optimise waste collection routes.

To better understand what the company is doing and how it is doing it, we speak to Roger Kim, Executive Director of Business Development at Ecube Labs.

Can you tell me more about the company?

Basically, we provide smart waste management solutions. We don’t only provide a single solution; we provide a platform solution.

When people say waste management, most people don’t realise that it’s actually quite complicated.

There are a lot of sub-industries, and sub-industries within those sub-industries, but the most inefficient of those industries is actually the collection industry.

It’s because it’s so obsolete, think of the most generic analogy most people use — the milk run. People don’t know how full each of these bins are, and they perform standard routes all the time.

Sometimes, they go to a bin and it’s zero per cent full, but they just go on a fixed schedule.

We have something called the Clean Cube, which is our first product. It’s a solar-powered waste compactor. Basically, we use solar energy — it has solar panels on top — and it powers the compactor inside of a waste bin.

Let’s say you look at a bin, and it looks like it fits about 100 litres of waste. What if you can fit about 800 litres of waste in that regular-sized bin? Logically speaking, you will have to go eight times less. You wouldn’t have to go once a day. If it literally fits eight times more, you can go once a week. That compactor compacts waste every time it comes up. Essentially, it increases the capacity. That’s where we first started.

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Not only waste management but the entire IoT space is just developing so quickly. We knew we had to do something with big data, sensors and wireless technology.

That’s why we decided to go with sensors. We monitor it and transmit data in real time. Basically, someone can log on, and they can see in real time where the bins are and how full each of them are. It helps, right?

Let’s say I am a waste collector. Instead of waking up at 5 in the morning, I get to wake up at 6, log in, see how full each of my bins are, and think — “Today, I only have to go to these three, instead of all 10,” for example.

After we developed that, we thought that we had to round out our portfolio. As you can imagine, your solar panel compactor, it’s a bigger investment. It’s usually more expensive than the regular waste bin.

We came up with a very compact product – more like a lite. We call it the Clean Cap, it’s a wireless field level sensor, which uses ultrasonic technology. We just attach it to any existing bin. You attach it, it senses, and also automatically transmits wireless information.

Honestly, there was one obstacle we had to overcome. Waste collectors are not like firemen. They are not standing by 24/7 a day. They are like regular federal employees, they work nine to five.

We needed some sort of not only real-time but [also] predictive technology. Big Data actually means the value of data, right? We can kind of tell them that “I know it’s only 10 per cent full now, but you tell me when you want to collect, I can tell you how full it will be then.”

We also do route optimisation, so we calculate the distance and time between these bins. It offers them huge cost savings.

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To me, it’s more about increasing the amount of productivity than saving money. Can you explain how it saves the waste collector companies or the government money?

This is something I kind of came to realise after working with governments: This cost-saving is not immediate.

It can be immediate theoretically, but these types of waste collection contracts, they’re not on a month by month basis, they’re usually on a longer term.

If they agree on a price, they usually have to keep paying that price until that contract is over. Usually, our biggest benefits can really be shown when it’s a new contract.

Seoul is actually a bit different from Europe or the US. It’s not privatised as much. We don’t have an exact figure but I’d say over 60 per cent of waste collection is public.

Even with longer contracts, some of these contracts have a clause that says we can renegotiate after two years.

Let’s say I am the government and I can fire people. Instead of 10 people, I only need two people, just off that, you save 80 per cent.

Routes are very inefficient, I think you can imagine. Some areas like schools and airports — they look very close on a map, but they’re very far away. I’m telling you that 99 per cent of waste collection routes have elements like this, where if you don’t go to an unnecessary bin, you save quite a lot of time and truck movement.

We’re talking fuel reductions and carbon emissions.

But this hypothetical scenario isn’t very realistic. The government doesn’t really like firing people, even if they don’t need them. The thing is, most governments have a lot of budgetary pressures. They have a lot of things they want to do, but they have the same budget. If they have 10 people, they have all these projects they want to do, but they don’t have the money for it, they can just use only two people for the waste collection and re-allocate the other eight people to projects that are unique, ones that can only be done with manual labour.

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How did you get into this industry? 

Sean, our CEO, went to Yonsei University in Korea and, if you look at that area, there are a lot of young college kids. On the weekends, it gets crazy. This is actually the biggest motivation behind our first product, the Clean Cube.

If you have these college, University kids partying on Friday, Saturday nights… I don’t care how many waste collectors you have, when it’s morning, there’s going to be trash everywhere. Basically, Sean thought, “I’m tired of seeing this.”

People litter when they see a trash can and it’s full. They put the trash on the top, on the side. For most civilised developed countries, if someone sees a trash can, they will put trash in it.

Once it gets to 8 or 9 PM, waste collectors are done. The bin is going to get full in an hour. Because of that, they just litter on the streets.

When did you start the company? How has it been since then?

[We started in] 2011. When people think of a lot of startups, they think four years is a really long time, and it is. I can’t say it’s a short amount of time. But I would say that in the startup world, we’re a bit unique.

When you try to integrate these hardware solutions, especially ones that need a lot of engineering expertise, we’re talking about a compactor that takes a lot of time for R&D.

How many compactors have you sold?

I’d say about 400 right now, worldwide. By region, Western Europe — mainly UK, Netherlands and Germany, I’d say Singapore, Japan, Korea, Australia, the UAE… Those are big markets. We recently entered Canada, and next year, we have aggressive plans to go into the US.

Correction: Ecube Labs CEO Sean Gwon was initially identified as Sean Sun. We regret the error.