Zanzibar Jambiani Clean Up

Jambiani, Zanzibar. Around 700 children from two local schools cleaned up the village and collected 57 garbage bags.

Świdnica, Poland. Waldemar Woźniak, a retired postman, cleaned up the local river and collected 2000 garbage bags.

There is also Zsuzsanna Ferrao’s family from India (100 bags), Daniel Toben from the US with friends (50 bags), volunteers from the Greek Island Kos ( 114 bags), and hundreds of people around the world who collected thousands of garbage bags. They all have two things in common. The first one: they actively work for a cleaner Earth. The second: thanks to a tiny Polish start-up Planet Heroes anyone can financially reward them for their social engagement.

Planet Heroes describe itself as the first-ever eco-crowdfunding platform for people who want to clean up the Earth. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, where the money is raised for something that is yet to eventuate, Planet Heroes makes it possible to reward cleaning efforts that have already taken place. If someone wants to arrange donations for their actions, they first have to clean up an area, then send photo documentation and go through a double check. The first check is required by law for international money transfers. The second one, based on data from photos, is to establish whether the area has actually been cleaned up and the garbage disposed of in the right place.

UN awards green start-ups

Despite its young age, the start-up has achievements that plenty of more developed companies can only dream of. The company won the UN competition for an ecological start-up at the United Nations Forum in Nairobi. It became a partner of the UN Habitat Waste Wise Cities Campaign which aims to solve problems of the 40 biggest cities in the world. As the first start-up in history, it had its official launch at the UN Science Policy Business Forum in Canberra, Australia. Also, it received a grant from Amazon to develop an Artificial Intelligence module. This will allow them to use Amazon’s cloud capabilities to analyze photos of dirty areas with a lot of rubbish.

Planet Heroes’ business model is based on commissions on bank transfers from donors to the various clean-up causes (standard practice for crowdfunding platforms), as well as various contributions to those causes from the revenues of their business partners. But when you talk to Przemysław Pyziel, the company’s co-founder, you get the impression that money comes second. Although they have built up the company from their own savings and they still keep pouring money into it, they have kept their commissions on bank transfers very low. They also don’t encourage users to make the highest possible transfers. And they reject business partnership proposals if the applicant company does not comply with their ethics. “We want our platform to be seen as a community that is focused on environmental activities. And not as a business project that sells cheaply to, for example, a cigarette manufacturer,” Przemysław Pyziel states.

Planet Heroes Co-Founders (from left to right), Przemek Pyziel , Monika Habrzyk and Adam Falkowski

New wave of positive business

Worldwide more and more companies think like the Planet Heroes founders: Money is a factor – yes, but it is more important to use technology to find a solution to important problems. Like fighting climate change, reducing waste, addressing exclusion. These global trends, although a little late, are also reaching Poland. For several years now these new types of companies can be seen on the start-up stage. Professor Bolesław Rok from Kozminski University, who for 20 years has been researching responsible business practices in Poland, calls such companies ‘positive impact start-ups.’

“This is a new global wave of positive business. There are several reasons why they are emerging in Poland right now. It has certainly been influenced by the social zeitgeist associated with such initiatives as school climate strikes, the social justice movement. Plus, also by EU regulations. For example, a ban on single-use plastics, and by people’s disillusionment with big business. For 10 years I have been running post-graduate studies on Corporate Social Responsibility. Until now, graduates have always wanted to work in corporations. This year, for the first time, most of the group wants to start their own company. Because they know that in a large corporation, they will not be able to realize their passion to change the world,” Bolesław Rok explains.

Bolesław RokMore than 400 positive impact companies in Poland

In a report published in June, he found over 400 such firms. The list is very diverse. There are both simple companies such as Café PoWoli, a café run by people with disabilities, and very technologically advanced companies. Such as Bio2Materials that has developed technology to produce textiles from apple pomace (dry pulp).

Some trends are easy to spot. The first is healthy food and plant-based food. The second is ethical fashion, while the third is natural cosmetics and cleaning products. There is a lot happening here. When we look for start-ups focusing on local and circular economies, these trends are less visible. These types of companies are just starting to appear.

Bacteria eat toxic substances

One of the companies that are part of this general trend is BACTrem. The company deviates from the image of a typical start-up. It was not founded by an angry young man who is mad at big business. But instead by a group of scientists led by Prof. Magdalena Popowska, a specialist in microbiology.

It all started with the patented bioremediation vaccine. It contains a dozen or so bacterial strains that purify areas polluted with oil-derived substances. In simple terms, the bacteria selected by Prof. Popowska’s team eat oil and decompose it into uncomplicated and harmless compounds. Today, the product portfolio also includes a vaccine for bioremediation of areas contaminated with creosote. Which is a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance that is used impregnate railway sleepers (the wooden beams on rail tracks) or wooden telephone poles. Another application is in soil preparations for farmers that reduce the effect of glyphosate and restore the natural biodiversity of soil microflora.

“The market tells us what products to make. We take on projects that will solve specific problems related to environmental protection for certain people. In the case of bioremediation of creosote, it all started from media reports that people are burning old railway sleepers. This is extremely stupid! That is why we wanted to create a technology that would be cheap so that everyone could use it. We developed soil preparations because the state of the soil in Europe is getting worse. That’s why we created preparations that restore the soil, and then less traditional fertilizers are needed,” says Andrzej Berezowski, COO at BACTrem.

No support for sustainable startups

There is one more thing that differentiates Polish positive impact start-ups from their Western counterparts. They cannot count on institutional support, either from the government or investors. “In Poland, this sector is still unprofessional because there are no qualified incubators or accelerators dedicated to sustainable start-ups. There are only a few individual initiatives. The impact investment market is still in its infancy. I am trying to get various investors involved in the impact investment trend. Everyone I tell about it says: “great, but we still have to make money.” Capital is international. I am convinced that impact funds will start to look more closely at Poland because there is a very interesting market here. When this happens, support for sustainable start-ups will finally be seen as normal,” Bolesław Rok adds.

Meanwhile, children from Jambiani village in Zanzibar are not aware of the problems that start-ups in Poland have. By the end of June, they have managed to collect €673. The first computers for local schools will be bought with this money. The collection for them lasts until the end of July.

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About the author

Author profile picture Katarzyna is a Polish business & tech journalist. In Polish media she explains the European Union, entrepreneurship and science - business cooperation. At Innovation Origins she tries to show interesting innovations from Central Europe. Katarzyna is fascinated with the Solution Journalism and how technologies can help solve contemporary problems. She also runs InnovateCEE (www.innovatecee.com) - a blog about innovations made in Central Europe.