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The Circular Impact Market Accelerator: Introducing India's first product accelerator programme

India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. Nearly 40% of this waste remains uncollected. 43% of manufactured plastic in India is used for packaging purposes, and is mostly single-use plastic! Mismanaged waste, including plastics, have an effect on human health with around 400,000 to 1 million people dying each year in developing regions.

The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

Companies and brands are in the spotlight to tackle their plastics use and waste issues. A mix of government policy, public demand, competitive pressures, and responsible behaviour intentions, is fast making this a need rather than just a responsible business practice. A few recent developments make this need to shift more urgent:

- The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) norms for plastics - which requires companies to take-back plastics they bring into the market towards effective recycling and recovery and away from the landfill - is about to be strengthened where enforcement agencies can take more stringent action on non-complying companies.

- More states are adopting bans against the use and sale of certain plastic materials and products leaving companies scrambling to find suitable alternatives.

- Consumer demand is also a driver. Aditya Dubey, a then 16-year old from Mumbai, brought a case to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2019 against Amazon and Flipkart for excessive use of plastics packaging in transport, which led to the NGT issuing a direction for the e-commerce organizations to get their act together.

Organizations that heavily utilise plastic products and packaging, especially in the F&B, retail, and FMCG sectors, are in dire need of innovations towards plastic reduction and circularity - reducing the number of plastics used by adopting alternatives and channelizing plastics towards effective recycling and recovery. They need to act now. There, however, is a problem of a lack of accessible and suitable solutions.

Today, we are in conversation with Shravan Shankar, Co-founder & COO of AtWorks, who have come up with an initiative to address this problem. AtWorks is launching The Circular Impact Market Accelerator, India’s first product accelerator to tackle adoption of plastic circularity innovations.

Why do so many high-potential plastic circularity innovations struggle with adoption?

Circular impact in plastics is a relatively new industry. Most solutions in the space are driven by new innovations, a lot of it by upcoming ventures and startups. Over the past 6 years of working in the sustainability and venture innovation space, we have seen a repeated issue faced by early-stage impact ventures: lack of early market adoption, customer access, and product-market fit. They lack a clear identification of the market opportunity and often are unsure who to target: business or consumers directly.

High potential early-stage innovations end up being lost due to this failing. Companies struggle to engage with startups due to a lack of expectation mismanagement on the scale and capability of what these innovations can deliver - a chicken and egg situation that benefits no one. We focus on companies here over direct consumers, as that’s where it is easier to get the scale you need. When you focus on consumer-facing companies, consumers will end up with the benefit.

What we really need to tackle today is getting more high-potential innovations adopted early by companies.

This is what we, at AtWorks, are looking to do with India’s first product accelerator to increase the adoption of alternatives and solutions to plastic use and waste in the mainstream industry - The Circular Impact Market Accelerator.

The Circular Impact Market Accelerator

We designed The Circular Impact Market Accelerator (CIMA) to bridge the gap between game-changing solutions to plastic use and their acceptance in mainstream markets.

The approach is quite straightforward. We identify a high-impact sector and an anchor company within to identify sector-relevant challenge areas. High potential innovations that address the challenges are invited to pilot them, and if successful, enter into a long term engagement with the anchor company and get the validation to work with others in the sector.

CIMA is being launched with support from The Incubation Network (TIN), a catalyst for action and investment to improve waste management and recycling systems aimed at preventing the flow of plastic waste into the world’s ocean.

The first cohort of CIMA is focused around enabling plastic circularity in the F&B restaurant sector.

Why have you chosen F&B space as the first focus industry for CIMA?

Food is one of the most conscious ways people look to make a change towards being more environmentally conscious. Organic, vegan, pesticide-free, natural, etc. the list of what people demand from food is a lot. With the COVID-19 pandemic and its increased reliance on food delivery, we can include the accumulation of plastic at homes to that list.

By targeting how people experience receiving and eating food sans plastics, we make them experience a part of sustainable living that can slowly start to influence their behaviour for more; while also tackling current plastics pollution. People do not transform overnight, but this does get the conversation going.

The second reason is the opportunity to work with one of India’s largest and likely most progressive restaurant chains.

The anchor for our first cohort of the Circular Impact Market Accelerator is Impresario Handmade Restaurants, the company behind Social Offline and Smokehouse Deli.

Sustainability is an important part of Impresario’s DNA, and its philosophy of ‘minimal intervention, maximum upcycling’ has played a big role in its design process over the years. While Impresario has been taking small steps here and there to run a more environmentally conscious enterprise, our partnership with them is designed to channel that vision into concrete action.

With Impresario, we have the luxury of working with teams that are constantly thinking about how and what it means to be more sustainable, a group that is continually pushing what they and the wider sector can do.

We’ve spent a good amount of time understanding their operations and we’re narrowing our focus of where we want to identify interventions around the following challenge areas. We invite anyone and everyone with a solution at hand to apply for the program.

What are you doing within the program to ensure wins and positive outcomes?

The program is straightforward, but making CIMA effective relies on a series of approaches and focus areas that we have built into it. I’ll focus on three that we feel are most important.

The first is the anchor company. Impresario’s stature as a highly credible early market opportunity in the F&B sector in India. A product validated by Impresario has a significant marquee customer on board to demonstrate to other brands. This willingness for an industry change has impressed us a lot about Impresario: the need is not about creating self-serving solutions but in supporting them to influence and transform the wider industry to be more circular and sustainable.

The second is the false promise of pilot programs. They often go nowhere post-pilot. We tackled this trap by measuring the success of the pilots through objective, measurable goals and targets mutually agreed by Impresario and the startup, which if met, unlocks the longer-term working relationship between the startup and Impresario and revenues and growth that comes with it.

The third area we wanted to tackle was the gender and power dynamics in the entrepreneurship and wider plastic waste management space.

An Invest India study found that only 5% of startups in India had women founders. That’s a shocking statistic. We need to increase this proportion to address power and gender dynamics in the leadership of how plastic circularity innovation is undertaken. For that purpose, we are targeting half the cohort to be startups that have a significant proportion of women in their leadership position.

Another aspect of gender dynamics we aim to address is in the operations connected to key-value chains of startups, e.g. recyclers and informal sector workers. Here we look to influence the practices of the selected startups to inculcate effective gender diversity and inclusivity approaches that often leave women in the sector at a disadvantage.

So what are the end goals you’re looking for through this program?

From this engagement with Impresario we want to create a playbook of sustainable practices for the F&B industry in India, and drive adoption of the same over time. Creating an industry-wide transformation is necessary for improving adoption, attracting more products and mainstreaming plastic circularity.

This is the larger purpose of platforms like CIMA. It is not only about providing a startup with, say, an affordable, natural packaging solution for liquids, with their first marquee customer to kick on and grow.

Without successes and easy access to customers like this, the circular impact sector will not be able to attract more innovators, investors and other resource and support providers to space. Markets and customers will not be able to access innovations needed to address plastic waste. The generation of plastic waste will continue with only incremental impact targeted at the end-of-pipe rather than the source (industry). This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed, which platforms like CIMA that creates such opportunities can start to do.

How Can Interested People Get Involved?

The call for applications for CIMA is currently open and we invite any prospective or interested organization to register their interest at the link here:

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