Making the world a better place, that is what the innovations at the Blue Tulip Awards 2020 are all about. Dutch startup Faqta took home the Education award for their Netflix-style approach of teaching kids the most important skills and life lessons. Meanwhile, the Climate award went to another leading Netherlands-based tech startup PolyStyreneLoop, for safely recycling a mind-boggling amount of polystyrene foam. Find out what made them the best innovations for a better world.
PolyStyreneLoop’s innovative cooperation in recycling polystyrene
Possibly the biggest challenge we’re facing is that of the imminent climate change and the ongoing care for our environment. To battle it, we need some smart solutions. And PolyStyreneLoop offers just that. They’ve developed a solution to close the loop for hard to recycle polystyrene foam that is left over as demolition waste. And they do so in an intelligent way, which won them the Blue Tulip Award 2020 in the Climate theme.
Polystyrene as demolition waste is a big environmental problem. It is hard to recycle as most of it contains the flame retardant HBCD. The molecule is now blacklisted due to ecological concerns, but was widely used and regularly found in building material from previous years and decades. And when we say ‘big’ problem, Alix Reicheneker, Circular Economy Manager of PolyStyreneLoop illustrates just how big a chunk of demolition waste we’re talking about exactly. “Every year in Europe we generate the volume equivalent to three million shipping containers of this type of waste. Imagine a piece of PS foam that is a meter high, 50 meters wide, and that wraps around the entire earth once.”
First recycling plant in 2021
The PolyStyreneLoop cooperative started in 2017 and is based on the CreaSolv Technology developed by CreaCycle GmbH and the German Fraunhofer institute. Instead of incinerating the foam, PolyStyreneLoop is able to separate the polystyrene from the HBCD through a solvent-based purification process. The bromine in the HBCD is subsequently recovered and HBCD safely destroyed. The bromine can now be used for new flame retardants and together with the recycled polystyrene they can be reworked into high quality PS-foam ready for use in new buildings.
By completely closing the loop, they save a lot of harmful emissions and ensure no resources are wasted on making new material. The company is currently building a recycling plant in the Dutch town of Terneuzen, which is planned to be finished in April 2021, allowing them to recycle 3 kilotons of foam a year.
The current situation around COVID-19 has hardly affected PolyStyreneLoop, says Reichenecker. “We can continue building the factory, and as for the rest, we were already working from home. Also, we can continue collecting material from our members and selling our final product to them as well. The only thing that could be of influence is the oil price. If this drops, new material will become cheaper compared to recycling. But we have contracts with our members, ensuring purchase. This gives us certainty for the coming years, something that is really necessary in these first few years.”
Faqta flips the classroom
On the other hand, Faqta did feel the consequences of COVID-19. “We lost some growth”, says Anouk Binkhuysen, CEO of the online, personalised video platform for children in primary schools. With schools closed due to the lockdown in the Netherlands, it was not the right time for Faqta’s potential clients to try out new products.
Faqta prepares children for life by ‘flipping the classroom’ as Binkhuysen calls it: “Normally kids are prepared before they do something with an assignment. So the first thirty minutes of the lesson is listening to a talking head. Then there is ten or fifteen minutes left to do something with that information. That is what we flip. With Faqta, kids are immediately set to an active learning mode; they are activated to do something. The layer on top of that is the teacher who coaches and gives context to the content.”
Link between online and offline world
Through the online platform is full of videos, children can learn about nature, science, programming, technology, history. Besides having the teacher as a coach, the children work in a buddy system and are encouraged to do their own research and conduct interviews outside the classroom. Binkhuysen: “We are the link between the online and offline world, the world these kids live in these days. We ask children to get ready for very complex jobs we don’t know anything about yet. With this programme, they work on a problem, they become curious, critical, and it prepares them for later in life.”
The closure of schools around the country isn’t all bad news, says Binkhuysen. “In traction, we’ve seen positive signs. So many schools that wanted to use us in the lockdown period.” The lockdown also gave Faqta an opportunity to do further research into how their product was received in a time when schools were closed. Binkhuysen: “Children like it a lot, and it didn’t affect their results. So we can conclude that a teacher is mandatory, but a teacher at a distance can also work very well. This is interesting because you can also translate that to math or language. It could solve the potential lack of teachers in the future.”
Blue Tulip Award ‘the prize I wanted to win’
Another positive thing that Faqta currently has going for them, is winning the Education theme in the Blue Tulip Awards 2020, says Binkhuysen. “There is a life before the Blue Tulip Awards and life after. It feels great winning this; it’s a great validation for our innovation. The difficult thing in education is that innovation from the outside often looks like any other product. But the real innovation is under the hood, and it’s great that we had an intelligent jury that picked up on that.”
The most crucial thing Binkhuysen learned was to explain the essence of their product in a simple way. “And the spin-off we got was amazing. Many schools that use our product are very proud that they are now working with an award winning solution. It really gives them the feeling they are working with something better than other schools. And for investors, it is also interesting to know that this is something valuable. There was one prize I wanted to win in my life, and it was this one.”
‘Already a business case’
Winning the Blue Tulip Awards was not on PolyStyreneLoop’s lifetime bucket list, but it does make them very happy and proud, says Reichenecker. “Winning the Blue Tulip Awards helps to increase awareness about PSLoop and interest in our cooperation.” The judges were not only charmed by the idea of a circular economy around polystyrene foam waste. “Most distinctive about us, they said, is that we already have a business case behind the technology. The fact that we do it in a cooperative model with over 70 members and supporters from 18 counties across the value-chain is what makes PolyStyreneLoop disruptive and unique.”
This solid business case will allow PolyStyreneLoop to scale up quickly. Reichenecker: “After we’ve completed our 3 kilotons plant, we’re able to mirror it in Terneuzen and add an extra capacity of 7 kilotons. We also have big plans in Germany, Italy and Poland for another five to ten factories. There is a lot of interest and a high demand for recycling solutions.”
PolyStyreneLoop has received funding via members and supporters in their cooperative, subsidies from the EU and the Province of Zeeland and bank loans. Success of the plant is however also dependent on the right political climate. “There is no precedent for what we’re doing, so it is important the government sees our added value as well. Once our plant is up and running and we’ve proven that what we do is possible, we expect there will be more incentive from the government. For instance, by making recycling of PS foam from renovations in public buildings mandatory. Or by making it easier to transport demolition waste across the borders.”
Foolproof remote learning solution
For Faqta, the goals for the future are pretty straightforward. “Every child needs to work with our platform,” says van Binkhuysen. They currently serve 191 schools which comes down to 30,000 paid users. But according to Binkhuysen, they currently have 100,000 users in total, with a lot of schools trying out their product for the next school year, starting September. “We also haven’t lost a school yet, so the churn is very low.”
Van Binkhuysen plans to double the users every year. An expansion they are equipped to handle in the current setup. The company employs 18 people, working in 11 FTE. They’ve raised 600.000 so far, but are not in a rush to add more capital. “We are getting break-even at the end of this year. We lost some growth due to corona. But it also showed this solution is vital. The common methods at schools don’t facilitate working at home. What we have shown in this period is a real foolproof remote learning solution.”