Katherine Shayne didn’t necessarily see entrepreneurship on her career roadmap. But she was finishing up her master’s at the University of Georgia and working on research at the UGA New Materials Institute when she realized a big problem: Individuals and businesses alike just don’t know what they can and can’t recycle.
“To recycle or not to recycle” is a harder question to answer these days than you might expect.
“The recycling industry in the US changes and evolves. Materials are accepted, and then they might be rejected. And new materials come onto the market,” Shayne told Hypepotamus. Ultimately, Shayne said the traditional waste management space is “decentralized” and “archaic.”
“There’s been adoption of some software, there’s been some machinery advancements. But we’ve had the same model for building landfills that we did in the 1970s. So there’s still very much a space for disruption and for innovation,” she added.
That’s where Shayne’s entrepreneurial journey began. She founded CIRT (Can I Recycle This) as a centralized database for material recovery.
The database includes information around the end-of-life for materials and packaging products. That includes the most up-to-date information as to whether a specific product is recyclable, compostable, or if something is destined for the landfill.
“I like to say that it’s kind of like the PitchBook for sustainable packaging and materials,” said Shayne.
The CIRT Team
While the team got off the ground selling this information to cities, it has transitioned to focusing on businesses. That B2B focus means catering to CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), retailers, and the packaging companies that sell to brands. The goal is to ensure brands are up-to-date with what materials can be recycled or recovered. For Shayne, it is also about making sure businesses and individuals “shift the dynamic from viewing something as waste to seeing things actually as a resource.”
CIRT joined ATDC, Georgia’s Advanced Technology Development Center, last year to better integrate with the state’s supply chain and sustainability ecosystems. The team also has a footprint at the Delta Innovation Hub located on UGA’s main campus.
Fueled by a SBIR (small business innovation research) grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Shayne said CIRT saw a “really great inbound interest at the end of 2022.” The team is hyperfocused on capitalizing on that momentum in 2023 and closing more deals.
It is also working on closing its seed round of funding.
Shayne has built up CIRT alongside co-founder and leading plastic pollution research expert Dr. Jenna Jambeck, who has been on the cutting edge internationally when it comes to understanding plastic waste.
Jennifer Davidson, who joined the team two years ago as COO and head of customer experience, brings in her key previous experience in the B2B landscape. The entire CIRT team has grown to 10 people to date. UGA and the wider Athens community has been key for hiring talent so far.
Let’s Talk SustainableTech
Sustainability isn’t just a buzz word in tech anymore.
In the Southeast, hubs for such innovations have evolved in Birmingham (Techstars EnergyTech program), Raleigh (North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center), and Georgia (Sustainable-X at Georgia Tech).
Startups in the recycling-focused sector of SustainableTech are also growing locally. Alongside CIRT, the region is home to the consumer-focused recycling app ECGO (previously Conserve Innovations), city-wide waste management service Glass Half Full, and Cox Enterprise-backed startup Nexus Circular.
Investors have been flocking to the space as new startups and larger corporations alike have pivoted their focus towards finding more sustainable solutions. One fourth of all venture capital dollars went into the wider ClimateTech vertical last year, according to a PwC report released in November. Funding in the space was up 89% year-over-year, defying the odds of in a slowly venture capital world.