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[Tuning In] Elias Willemse on tackling urban waste by shifting gears from academia to AI innovation

Written by Emily Fang Published on   2 mins read

Waste Labs offers an AI and data modelling platform to help waste management companies reduce costs and improve efficiency through an optimal combination of vehicles, crew and routes.

Dr. Elias Willemse is the co-founder and CTO at Waste Labs, a deep tech startup that uses AI to modernise waste management and recycling. He was previously a research fellow at SUTD and a lecturer at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, where he grew up exposed to the repercussions of the poor delivery of municipal services. Motivated to make a difference, he made the leap from academia to entrepreneurship by joining Entrepreneur First in Singapore. He met his co-founder and together, they created Waste Labs to solve the problem of poor waste management in cities. Elias holds the belief that more scientists and researchers should take the same plunge as he did and become entrepreneurs to solve problems that they are passionate about.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): What piqued your interest in waste management? Tell me about growing up in South Africa and how that interest emerged. 

Elias Willemse (EW): In South Africa, waste management is different depending on where you’re from. In rich areas, waste is collected very well and the areas are clean. In dirty areas, it’s not collected at all. Growing up in that setting, you’re always aware of that.

Finishing my studies, I thought, “What can I do to use my skills and what I studied to try and make an impact in my country?” Then, looking into waste management, I saw how much money was being spent on collecting waste and driving it to dump sites. For a city of Singapore’s size, it’s easily USD 100 million. This is money that could be spent on building schools or hospitals, especially in developing countries where the government doesn’t have a lot of money. Then my obsession started, about how I can help cities to collect waste better and spend less money.

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