Roles of start-ups in scaling circular innovation

Examples from design and the built environment

The idea of a circular economy is not entirely new - but the implementation of circularity in established solutions and value chains is too slow to drive the change that we need, says Marvin Henry, Senior Manager Avoided Emissions at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and former doctoral researcher at Utrecht University.

Last updated: September 12, 2023 Rotterdam, Netherlands

By Marvin Henry, Senior Manager Avoided Emissions, WBCSD

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To build a better understanding of why startups are so relevant and how they drive innovation forward, Marvin examined startups that build circular or sustainable models from scratch analyzing their systemic interactions as part of his doctoral research at Utrecht University. His research finds that startups often build systems around the solution that can have a wider effect and reinforce systems change for circular innovation.

Essential roles of startups

Startups do not only innovate technologically, but more importantly they can drive new business models that differ from those of incumbent firms in embracing the circular economy. According to Marvin, these business models can be grouped into four categories: reinforcers, conveners, pioneers, and mentors/champions.

In the construction sector, the reinforcers empower consumers to make more sustainable choices, by providing information e.g. on the carbon footprint of materials. Conveners have the role to connect supply chains and provide new forms of collaboration and delivery such as introducing waste-based solutions into supply chains to increase the rate of material circularity. Pioneers consciously aim to change policies and challenge standard practice by going a step beyond norms to establish a new baseline. Finally, the mentors/ champions among startups become a role-model for innovating circular entrepreneurship by sharing their knowledge and encouraging talent beyond their own activities.

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