Feature Story | 2-May-2022

"Roombas for coastal waterways": Startup aims to clean up plastic pollutants

Clean Earth Rovers plans to launch first Plastics Piranha in June

University of Cincinnati

A dream of ridding the oceans of plastic pollutants brought Clean Earth Rovers to the University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation Hub, where the startup developed an autonomous rover that soon will take to the water.

Michael Arens is the CEO of Clean Earth Rovers, a Venture Lab-backed startup that will launch its first autonomous rover to collect plastic debris from waterways this summer.

“[It’s] a way for us to tackle waste in our coastal waterways using autonomous vehicles and data-monitoring devices that act essentially as Roombas for coastal waterways,” Arens said.

Clean Earth Rovers is one of the startups that have come out of the Venture Lab at UC and received seed funding through the program.

UC’s Venture Lab, located in the 1819 Innovation Hub in the Cincinnati Innovation District, accelerates and simplifies the process of creating a new company from scratch. The Venture Lab connects entrepreneurs to talent and funding to help launch new companies.

“I don’t think we’d be where we are today without that support,” Arens said.

Clean Earth Rovers has developed an autonomous rover that skims marina facilities and can collect 100-plus pounds of waste per trip. It is 100% electric and uses obstacle avoidance software to stay clear of boaters and marine life.

The first Plastics Piranha is scheduled to launch in mid- to late-June at Point San Pablo Harbor near San Francisco.

“Everything we do is with our mission in mind, and that is to drastically improve the health of coastal waterways and leave things better for the next generation,” Arens said.

Arens and Clean Earth Rovers Chief Operating Officer David Constantine graduated from the Venture Lab in February 2020 as the first non-UC affiliated team to go through the program.

They initially planned to attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a zone in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California that has a high concentration of plastic waste. However, during their time in the Venture Lab, they met Entrepreneur-in-Residence Chris Petersen, who advised them to rethink their approach.

“What we found is there is not a significant or a well-thought-out business model for tackling the Pacific garbage patch,” Arens said. “There’s no customer when you’re operating at that scale to fund it.”

Petersen, now Clean Earth Rovers’ chief revenue officer, encouraged the team to start smaller, focusing on coastal debris.

“If you start small, it opens the doors up for a lot of different opportunities,” Arens said. “With that in mind, we very quickly discovered there’s a need in the marina space and especially in areas along the U.S. coastline where all this debris is constantly floating into people’s facilities.”

Along with providing a better business model, the coastal approach to tackling plastic pollution could have a greater effect on cleaning up the oceans as most of the plastic waste lies within nearshore waterways.

“The vast majority of it stays either along our beaches or our coastal waterways,” Arens said. “It goes through this cycle of constantly being pulled out by the tide and slammed back into the beaches.”

In addition to collecting plastic, the Plastics Piranha also collects water monitoring metrics including dissolved oxygen, oxygen reduction potential, temperature, ph levels and more.

“We have this huge issue across the entire U.S. where there’s over 15,000 bodies of water that have reported algal or bacterial pollution events because they go completely unmonitored,” Arens said.

While data about air quality is readily available to most Americans, Arens said, there’s a lack of data infrastructure for water quality.

Collecting water quality information would allow people to know if the water they’re swimming in is safe and would allow governments to be more proactive in addressing water quality issues, which can have safety and economic implications.

“For instance, in Florida in 2019, in about a month-span they lost $200 million due to red tide alone,” Arens said.

Clean Earth Rovers employs recent college graduates, like UC alumnus Jonathan Rosales — the company’s chief technology officer — and current students from UC. They’ve built two Plastics Piranhas so far and have plans to complete more by the end of the summer.

The startup is looking for a manufacturing partner to help ramp up production, possibly as soon as 2023, but for now all of its production is completed in the Makerspace at UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub.

“They’ve been very generous to give us our own space,” Arens said. “They’ve given us a lot of coaching and consulting about different things that just make sense when it comes to product design and easier ways to manufacture. They’ve leant a hand in more ways than we can count. Just being in an area where you’re surrounded by so many experts, it really does create a lot of value versus trying to do it on your own and trying to learn on the fly.”

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