Revolutionary sustainability start-up works with students on national expansion

23 September 2021
Connecting Master of Commerce students with industry
Students have contributed to the development of an impactful new start-up, Mercularis, which aims to improve waste management systems through a digital circular economy approach.

Master of Commerce students in the Strategy, Innovation and Management specialisation have collaborated with a ground-breaking circular economy start-up founded by a University of Sydney academic to work toward solving waste and recycling problems in Australia.

The NSW government recently announced that the state will be phasing out all single-use plastics by 2025, which will prevent 2.7 billion items from entering landfill and oceans. Whilst this is welcome news, sustainability start-up Mercularis believes everyone at the individual, institutional and industrial levels need to be involved in solving the larger problem of the way we treat resources; the make–use–waste linear economy model.

Mercularis founder Dr Gobi Rajarathnam

Mercularis is a unique start-up in the Digital Circular Economy space, co-founded by Dr Gobinath Rajarathnam (Gobi), who also has an academic role as interdisciplinary postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sydney.

Together with colleagues, Gobi is developing AI-powered platforms which easily connect waste producers with recyclers and others who can use waste as alternative resource streams, forecast waste flows, and optimise circular supply chains by offering feasible and readily available alternatives for specific industries.

By changing society's approach and ease-of-access to alternative resources, Mercularis believes that improvements can be accelerated to a sufficient level to tackle the imminent sustainability crises we face.

"A well-connected digital circular economy is something the world truly needs, because it has an immediate impact on reducing day-to-day landfill activities, creating significant new economic value in terms of products and markets, in turn helping extend usefulness of material we already have available and bringing an overall benefit to society and the planet."

The cooperation with Mercularis is the practical part of SIEN6004 Innovation Ecosystems, a unique industry-focused unit designed by Dr Maria Rumyantseva from the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. 

It provides Master of Commerce students with the opportunity to absorb the latest research insights from innovation theory, drawing on Dr Rumyantseva’s interdisciplinary research in innovation and management, as well as a first-hand understanding of start-up experience of new ventures from partner companies that have originated from University of Sydney’s research projects.

The new Innovation Ecosystems unit allows students to work with University of Sydney scientists commercialising unique ideas and inventions that have the potential to disrupt existing industries and change the way we go about our everyday life.
Dr Maria Rumyantseva

Students taking this unit worked to develop strategy and an appropriate business model for Mercularis, based on a variety of sources such as past industry placement experiences, class content, and collaborations with various industry partners.

The students had the opportunity to engage with industry and institutional experts whom are key players in the circular economy community, including the CEO of ASPIRE (CSIRO's waste management pilot project), the Waste Management Coordinator of Bathurst Regional Council, and the CEO of Remondis Australia, as well as multiple sessions with Mercularis’ Dr Rajarathnam.

"The students have helped our strategy immensely by independently validating our current approach, and introducing us to new ways of thinking about markets we’re able to enter," Gobi said.

"I chose to partner with Master of Commerce students at the Business School because of its excellent reputation. The staff and students were a great fit with our values, and I was keen on giving back to the University of Sydney which has given me so much; first as a student and then as a staff member."

Gobi appreciated the sustained enthusiasm he witnessed from students throughout the semester. He says the students demonstrated the high quality of their work by immersing themselves in the field, asking insightful questions and working to deliver practical recommendations with strong business acumen.

"I am genuinely glad the world has a new batch of students equipped with insight into a field of critical importance to the well-being of the world. They genuinely care about our global shared future and are clearly inspired, which further motivates our efforts at Mercularis," Gobi said.

Steven Huang, Master of Commerce student

Steven Huang is one of the students who participated in the project, and found it to be very beneficial, both for his personal skill development and for his contribution to industry innovation.

"Because my background is in engineering and project management, completing projects like this one while studying a Master of Commerce helps me to link my day-to-day work to the business environment," he said.

"Sustainability has always been important, and it is great to be involved in this space. It prompts us to look at a broader picture where businesses can find opportunities to strive and, at the same time, deliver long-term social and environmental benefits."

Mercularis has taken on board the strategies developed by the Master of Commerce students ahead of their next steps, which include national expansion of their platforms. They will be returning to collaborate with the next cohort of students in Semester 2, 2021 to sharpen focus on scale-up and specific growth strategies for particular industries.

The circular economy: an explainer for businesses

What do businesses need to know about the circular economy? Who is leading in this space? Dr Maria Rumyantseva explains.

1. The move to the circular economy must include every step of the value chain and needs to be repeated again and again.

The goal is to reuse and recycle the same resource for as long as possible, minimising extraction and extending the lifecycle of resources already in use.

We now have exciting new technologies that open up tremendous opportunities in this space, including in Australia. An example is Licella, a Sydney-based company co-founded by the University of Sydney's Professor Thomas Maschmeyer. Licella is commercialising a world-leading technology for the chemical recycling of end-of-life plastic – this process has the potential to both reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and cut emissions.

2. The move to the circular economy will not happen in isolated industries; it needs a collective and well co-ordinated effort.

We see many great initiatives in this space that have the potential to drive this move.

One very promising grassroots initiative that started as a CSIRO-backed pilot project in Melbourne is ASPIRE. It has since grown into an internationally present commercial platform that facilitates trading of waste as a resource.

The platform has been initially built to address the problem of municipal solid waste, one of the largest categories of landfill waste that can be commercially recycled. ASPIRE's growth over the past seven years has been remarkable and there is clearly huge demand for such innovative solutions.

3. We need to focus effort on understanding the largest category of landfill waste: ‘unknown’.

To do this, we do not necessarily need to physically sort this waste, although some sorting will be necessary. In fact, this is already done by scientists who apply AI to cover the gaps in existing waste data through platforms such as Mercularis.

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