MIE Graduate Students’ Cleantech Startup Wins $20,000

rStream Recycling pushes the limits of high-tech sustainability by leveraging recent advances in machine vision and novel hardware to automate waste sorting

rStream Recycling LLC, a company founded by two mechanical engineering graduate students, has been announced as one of 10 U.S.-based early-stage companies selected to participate in VentureWell’s Propel workshop this week at the Cambridge Innovation Center. The workshop and associated grant are intended to cultivate a pipeline of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs to solve the world's biggest challenges and to create lasting impact.

NEWS rStream group photo
From left to right: Ethan Walko, Ian Goodine and Thomas Gable

Co-founders Ian Goodine and Ethan Walko have spent the past two years honing their innovation, with which they aim to revolutionize sustainable waste management through robotics, artificial intelligence and material science to cut into the 66 million tons of recyclables landfilled annually each year in the U.S.

"We believe advancing the state-of-the-art in autonomous sorting is the most practical path to guaranteeing materials reach a sustainable end-of-life,” Goodine says.

But the team says that there are flaws throughout the collection, contamination and reprocessing of materials for recycling.

“The obvious challenge is that no single thread of research and support can solve these problems alone,” Walko says.

The team has brought together an ensemble of campus departments to rise to the challenge.

In the College of Engineering, rStream has sponsored six senior capstone teams, including two prize-winners. rStream originated as a student lead capstone project in 2020 and has continued working with Jim Lagrant, mechanical engineering professor, who endorsed their VentureWell grant saying “[the team’s] knowledge of market needs, combined with their technical background has given them an advantage over most other startups who either have a technology seeking a market, or a market seeking a technology, but not both.”

Goodine and Walko are also researchers in the Advanced Polymer Engineering Lab (APEX), where their efforts are focused on exploring revolutionary ways to recycle tough-to-recycle materials. Working with Ph.D. students Yijie Zhou and Yurui Liu and professor Yanfei Xu in collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, the team researched innovative recycling methods for tough-to-recycle materials.

“Our lab has been inspired by Ian and Ethan’s leadership and their commitment to advancing waste management technologies through studying the recycling of plastics. The students receiving the VentureWell Award are extraordinary,” Xu says. “I was introduced to their interest in the recycling and manufacturing challenges of polymers during the 2021 Advance Polymer Manufacturing course” Xu adds.

“They are currently collaborating and intensively exploring how to turn waste from single-use plastic food containers into lightweight, functional materials for thermal management applications…results are pending on publishing in 2022,” Zhou says.

Last fall, in partnership with UMass Dining Sustainability, the team led a waste-sort at the Lincoln Campus Center’s BlueWall Cafe to explore how rStream technology can add to the sustainability profile of the campus’s top waste generator.

The team additionally engaged the faculty and staff of Isenberg’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and the IALS Venture Development under director Karen Utgoff to refine their pitch and develop their business model.

Through these efforts, rStream Recycling has received numerous accolades in the past two years.

The team was a winner of Isenberg’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship Innovation Challenge Finals in the spring of 2021; was accepted into the Cleantech Open’s summer 2021 accelerator, the largest clean technology accelerator in the world; and was awarded funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center after becoming a finalist in the Lever Inc fall 2021 sustainability challenge.

“These achievements have been instrumental in helping us to develop our approach to waste disposal and recycling at the local, national, and international levels,” says Goodine. “Our next steps are to publish, patent, and seek out federal funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy.”