Five Start-Ups Raising the Bar for Environmental Impact

Benjamin Davies / Unsplash

From turning waste plastic into bricks, to storing carbon in consumer goods, the BMW Foundation's RESPOND Accelerator program is backing start-ups that have sustainability at their core.

Not many start-ups have access to personal coaches and mentors. Indeed, not many have access to a single mentor, let alone hundreds of business leaders and social change-makers from across the globe. But then not many are part of the BMW Foundation’s Respond Accelerator 2020. It’s a unique programme which, along with the usual legal and business support offered by an accelerator, also draws on the expertise of the foundation’s Responsible Leaders Network to advise its fledglings. As such, it’s a very practical way of bringing to life the principle of responsible leadership which the Network embodies.

The accelerator, which is operated by UnternehmerTUM, kicked off in June this year, with all 10 start-ups convening for a week of virtual sessions. Each company’s mission is linked to the UN’s sustainable development goals, a key element of the accelerator’s criteria. Here are five which, with a little help from their coaches, could nudge us towards a healthier, cleaner planet.


When Oluwamayowa Salu graduated from university in his home country of Nigeria, he found himself jobless as well as homeless. “I actually lived in my pastor’s office for nearly a year,” he says.

Seeing that he was not alone in his plight, and that plastic pollution was also an issue plaguing Nigeria, he came up with the idea for Brickify. The company collects waste plastic and turns it into large Lego-like bricks that can be used to construct low-cost homes, roads and furniture. The bricks are 50-70% cheaper than conventional ones and can cut construction time by half, claims Salu. The beauty of Brickify is that it tackles the scourge of plastic waste that Nigeria’s unreliable refuse collection system often fails to capture, while also providing a key component of affordable housing.

Salu now has plans for a system whereby individual households could exchange their plastic waste for credits redeemable for products such as soap, transport vouchers or school fees.

Plan A

Four years ago, a surfing trip to Morocco proved a wake-up call for Lubomila Jordanova. “I was shocked to see plastic and other waste in the ocean and all over the beach,” she says. She met Nathan Bonniseau around the same time, and the two of them founded Plan A.

The company helps businesses measure and reduce their carbon and plastic footprints by providing personalised sustainability action plans and options to offset emissions. According to Jordanova, these go far beyond a standard cookie-cutter offset scheme.

“Monitoring all your emissions is a complicated process, especially if you are a larger corporate,” she explains. “The main aim of Plan A’s product is to put sustainability, carbon monitoring and reporting activities for businesses under one roof.”

It uses specially designed software to automate data collection and analysis, helping companies make real progress on shrinking their environmental footprints within a year. Among the offset offers are schemes providing solar cookers for Sudanese refugees in Chad, and conserving giant panda habitat in China.


Environmental taxes set by governments across Europe, along with a growing awareness of the damaging effect of single-use plastic, have gone some way in helping us to move away from plastic bags. Start-up Goodbag’s scheme could help too.


Respond program

RESPOND is a BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt accelerator program, operated by UnternehmerTUM, which exists to accelerate startups and empower leaders to take their business to the next level. The 10 startups of the first cohort will take part in intensive workshops and coachings on topics such as sustainability and responsible leadership, drawing on the experience and expertise of members of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network. The program ends with a final pitch night on October 13, to which investors and industry stakeholders are invited.

Here’s how it works. Purchase their organic cotton bag and download the Goodbag app. This will show details of more than 1,000 shops across Europe, including Swiss supermarket chain Denner, which offer rewards on products sold to Goodbag owners. Once you’re in the shop, you can check in via the app, hold your NFC-equipped smartphone next to the logo on the bag and select the reward that suits your fancy. Choose from either a coupon that saves money in-store, or make a donation to cover the cost of planting a tree or lifting a plastic bag from the ocean.

According to CEO and co-founder Christoph Hantschk, you’ll soon be able to use it worldwide, including in chains such as Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in the UK.

Got Bag

A backpack is a lot more durable than a shopping bag, but it too can be plastic - although in Got Bag’s case, it’s of a thoroughly sustainable variety, both in environmental and social terms. It’s made of plastics recovered from the ocean by 1,500 fishermen in Java, Indonesia, and is produced in a factory in China that pays and treats its workers fairly.

Got Bag has a solid list of certifications under its belt: Bluesign, given to products produced with low levels of harmful substances, along with Sedex, Bureau Veritas and BSCI, which attest to high levels of social sustainability in their supply chain.

Team Got Bag
The team of Got Bag uses recycled plastics collected from the ocean for their products.

What’s more, the bags are shipped by train, not plane, from their factory, reducing transport emissions, and you can send yours back to them for repair if need be. The rucksacks, along with other products such as laptop sleeves and wallets, are sold online and in 150 retail stores across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. There’s also a nifty hip bag available for pre-order, too.

Made of Air

If you’re not a science-type, it can be hard to wrap your head around just what Berlin-based start-up Made of Air actually does.

Essentially, they take waste biomass such as tree clippings or crop residue, and, by partially burning it in an oxygen-deprived environment (a process known as pyrolysis), turn it into biochar. This carbon-rich substance is then made into a material that can be used as cladding for buildings, for vehicle parts, furniture and consumer goods.

The process effectively ‘locks in’ the carbon that would otherwise be released when the biomass decays, so the material is effectively carbon negative. As co-founder Allison Dring explains, the process can be said to “actively reverse climate change.”

Dring and fellow co-founder Daniel Schwaag have lots of experience in the design and mechanics of sustainable building materials. They are the inventors of a pollution-sucking honeycomb-esque building facade that takes the equivalent of 1,000 cars worth of pollution out of the air per day.

“Inventing and applying a carbon negative material to industry is a big challenge”, says Dring, but when it works at scale, it will be system changing for manufacturing.”

This article has been published in partnership with Positive News. It is the second part of a series portraying the work of Responsible Leaders who contribute in their personal and professional lives to a more peaceful, just, and sustainable future. Read the first article here.

Latest Stories
Sustainable Cities

How many leaders does a city need? Certainly, more than one.

Human Rights

How to Educate Yourself About Racism

Maya-Mehta-TwentyThirtyMaya Mehta
Sustainable Finance

Legal Purpose: How a Lawyer Made Sustainability Her Career


By using this website you consent to the use of cookies. Please click here to learn more about the use of cookies on this website. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.