I’ve got to admit, the respective pedigrees of Glacier’s founders are a bit unexpected for a recycling robotics company. Areeb Malik used to be a software engineer at Facebook, and Rebecca Hu worked at Bain and Company.
"While working at Bain, I found myself developing dual interests in industrials and consumer goods," Hu tells TechCrunch. "Recycling automation is uniquely positioned at the intersection of those two industries -- we're building infrastructure to handle the byproducts of our consumerism. When you also factor in my experience scaling several high-growth startups, building a recycling automation startup was a natural next step for me."
But the firm, which has thus far been operating in stealth, has already attracted the attention of some key names, including former GE CEO Jeff Immelt, former Uber CPO Manik Gupta and Climate Tech VC co-founder, Sophie Purdom. The trio participated in the startup’s just-announced $4.5 million seed round, led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA).
The funding will go toward increasing headcount and accelerating the system’s commercial deployment. Founded in 2019, Glacier has run a number of pilots. More recently, it launched its first commercial system at a facility in Los Angeles.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how massive an issue recycling is. It’s something a lot of smart people have been working on for a very long time -- and yet, there are still major stumbling blocks when it comes to reclaiming and repurposing the unthinkable volumes of waste humans create every year.
Image Credits: Glacier Robotics
"Glacier's technology has benefited from not only Areeb's AI experience at Facebook, but also our incredible team of interdisciplinary robotics and AI engineers," Hu tells TechCrunch. "Our team has developed and deployed self-driving excavators and forklifts, extraterrestrial mining robots, humanoid disaster response robots and AI models to detect prostate cancer. We're really proud to have gathered some of the best technological minds in one place. What makes us particularly special, and what we look for in every new hire, is a deep passion for fighting climate change. That intrinsic motivation across the whole team really pushes us to go the extra mile for the entire recycling industry."
This is one of those spaces where robotics can really shine. Its full of thankless, dirty and repetitive tasks -- precisely the sort of things that are perfectly positioned to be automated. Advances in things like computer vision and machine learning have made these devices increasingly well positioned to take on the task.
There are a number of companies already operating in the space. Colorado-based AMP is probably the best known, while big companies like Apple have their own in-house system designed to strip iPhones down to their reusable parts. Glacier says its advantages are three-fold: low cost, small size and easy install.
"When we started Glacier, a few nascent companies were already developing recycling robots," says Hu. "To make sure we could offer a unique value proposition, we interviewed over a dozen recycling facilities to understand industry sentiment on existing robotic solutions. The feedback we received was shockingly unanimous. Everyone knew about AI-enabled robotics and its potential to improve profitability and sorting consistency. That said, every facility we talked to also had concerns about existing robots being too expensive and too big for the job they do. Remember that recycling facilities are very space-constrained, which means that every square foot counts."
Glacier’s first commercial system is currently up for preorder.