Smarter Sorting Raises $17M to Cut Waste and (Hopefully) Save Some Animals

by Tatum Hunter
September 23, 2019
Smarter Sorting big data tech jobs Austin
photo via shutterstock

Want to know if a particular chemical is safe for human use? Dump it in a tank full of guppies and count how many of them die.

It sounds like one of Dr. Evil’s pilot programs, but tests like this happen every day in animal testing labs across the world. 

On one hand, animal testing can feel cruel and unfair. On the other hand, it’s one of the only ways for companies to ensure their products are safe without testing on humans.

Austin startup Smarter Sorting wants to end cosmetics testing on animals — and cut commercial regulated waste by 50 percent. But first, it has to build a really big data set.

Its plan is to create the first AI-driven database, or so-called automated classification engine, for consumer products. This tool will break down the chemical composition of consumer goods at a granular level, enabling companies to more strategically manage regulated waste, like batteries or detergent.

Ideally, cosmetics producers will one day use this tool to input the chemical makeup of their products and find existing research on the chemicals’ effects, eliminating the need to re-test on animals. 

Smarter Sorting raised $17 million late last week to build out the database. The round was led by US Ecology, a regulated waste treatment and disposal company. RTP Ventures and a group of industry experts also participated, the company said in a statement. 

Clients already use Smarter Sorting’s platform to make sure their practices are compliant with waste management laws. These laws vary from state to state, which can make it tricky to keep track. For example, in California, companies must follow the strict rules for throwing away regulated waste even if they’re taking the waste to be recycled. 

But regulations aren’t the only thing making life harder for companies. The companies’ own hesitancy to disclose the chemical makeup of their products gets in the way, too. 

“There’s a lot of opaqueness in the space because manufacturers don’t want the specific formulas for their products to be known, for obvious reasons like intellectual property. But what we’re able to do is use ranges instead of using the actual formulations,” Smarter Sorting’s VP of Sustainability Scott Mackey told Built In. “Our hope is that by making a comprehensive database based on ranges, we’re able to bring public transparency and understanding to the broader space in a way that will limit regulatory issues, because regulations thrive when no one knows what’s going on and everyone’s guessing.”

At first, Smarter Sorting helped city governments manage waste more efficiently, then it started targeting retailers and, most recently, large manufacturers. The move into manufacturing presents a big opportunity to scale, as Smarter Sorting can now work with companies along the entire supply chain. 

In addition to compliance, Smarter Sorting’s platform helps companies extend product life by reporting on opportunities to donate or recycle. Retailers can save a lot of money through tax write-offs if they closely track shelf life and donate products like paint before they expire.

In the future, Smarter Sorting’s technology may also help combat our world’s plastic waste problem. Right now, 18 billion pounds of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year, threatening marine life. 

As interest in environmental issues grows, the government may broaden its rules, making plastic a regulated waste. Companies could use a platform like Smarter Sorting to track and reduce the plastic they use. The same idea could apply to food waste, which costs industrialized countries $680 billion annually. 

“The same value we’ve added for products that are currently regulated, we’ll be able to add for product types that are regulated down the road,” Mackey said. “Or as consumers continue to drive behavior change for large companies because their demands are different, we’ll be able to help companies get ahead of the curve from a sustainability perspective.”

Furthermore, if the database were searchable and public, it would help hold companies accountable for which materials they use and how they dispose of them. 

Smarter Sorting’s latest funding round will translate to hiring in Austin. The company currently has a team of 38 and plans to hire 14 more in the next six months. The bulk of those hires will be engineers and data scientists who will help the company build its automated classification engine.

“The big project is building a universal product database, which involves understanding every item down to its chemical level and creating versatile data sets that we’re then able to manipulate in a variety of ways to meet the regulatory and sustainability needs of partners across the supply chain,” Mackey said.

It’s a big job. But somebody’s gotta save all those guppies.

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