The task might be mundane but the machines that do it are anything but.
When Jufo Peltomaa and Tuomas Lukka were figuring out what to do next after selling Hybrid Graphics to Nvidia seven years ago, they knew it had to involve one thing.
“Our business plan was — let’s do something cool with robots!” Peltomaa said.
The pair, plus their third co-founder Harri Volpola, are one of the most interesting entrepreneurial teams out of Finland today. Lukka is the country’s youngest ever Ph.D. after getting his degree in quantum chemistry at the age of 20 and Peltomaa is an early 1990s pop star from one of the country’s first rap groups, a past career he kind of wants to leave behind.
They didn’t know exactly what these robots would do, so they did hours and hours of interviews with different potential customers.
“The question we asked was, ‘How can we help you? What are you losing money on right now?’” he said. They looked at a number of industries like warehouse logistics and food companies.
They stumbled on a problem which wasn’t only just lucrative, but also interesting from a technical perspective. There were problems with getting machines to pick up oddly-shaped objects. They decided to settle on robotic recycling, with the European Union alone seeing 3 billion tons of waste each year and the regional construction industry generating 900 million tons of demolition waste annually.
They would build a system that would sort through trash and pick out things that could be recycled for extra revenue like wood or metal.
Their solution, which can cost anywhere up from a starting price of a half-million dollars, uses off-the-shelf industrial robots that are enhanced by artificial intelligence to determine whether trash rolling through on a conveyor belt is recyclable.
ZenRobotics’ system is also bolstered with several load sensors which detect things like surface area and weight.
The robots weigh trash as they lift pieces and calculate the price a piece could be redeemed for. There are also infrared scanners and metal detectors built into the system as well.
“These are the same kinds of robots that are used in Volkswagen factories,” Peltomaa said. “They are standard industrial robots. They are honed to be really reliable. What we are developing behind them is artificial intelligence software.”
They can also maintain the systems remotely so they can monitor if any parts in the system are starting to wear down ahead of time.
Peltomaa says that a client might normally pay 100 euros to get rid of a ton of waste. But if they can pick out a ton of metal, then they can sell that for about 250 euros.
The company has sold five units so far since they only started about a year ago, and believe that the total market size globally for what they make is about 8,000 units. They put together the systems locally in Finland and then deliver them to the customer.
The company just closed 13 million euros in funding from Invus, a private equity firm that has about $4 billion under management. They also pulled in a CEO who can scale the company in Juho Malmberg, who used to run Accenture in Finland and grew their office from 10 to 800 people. They also brought in Jorma Eloranta as a chairman of the board. He used to run mining and construction giant Metso, which pulled in 7.5 billion euros in revenue last year.
“We want to bring multi-billion euro thinking to our company,” Peltomaa said. “It will be our own fault if we don’t make it.”