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Eco-Concrete: Building a Greener Future with Phoenix Materials

Krish Mehta entered the Stanford Graduate School of Business with a clear objective: to launch a startup in the climate sector, focusing particularly on the decarbonization of concrete. Despite his initial lack of specific knowledge about the concrete industry, Krish was aware of its significant environmental impact, contributing to 8% of global CO2 emissions. With this problem in mind, Krish enrolled in Stanford’s Hacking for Climate and Sustainability (now known as Innovation for Impact under NobleReach Foundation). This course, recommended by peers, was designed to deep dive into environmental issues and foster innovative solutions. Here, Krish would have the opportunity to learn and practice entrepreneurial methodologies rooted in Lean Launchpad, a process for quickly testing and iterating ideas through customer discovery interviews.

Once enrolled in the course, Krish joined forces with fellow classmates Shilesh Muralidhara (MsX, GSB), Tony Cruz (MS, Sustainability), Manju Murugesu (Ph.D., ERE), and Ayaan Asthana (MS, Sustainability) and formed a team they named “Gremixto address the concrete problem Krish identified. The rigor of the class offered substantial rewards. The teaching team would let the students know that they would need to conduct over 100 customer discovery interviews over the following quarter, and although this would be more labor intensive than many of their other courses, this customer discovery process would be critical in Krish’s eventual journey to start Phoenix Materials, the startup he spun out of team Gremix.

Team Gremix initially started out with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that consisted of a type of cement that required less processing, and thus less emissions. Through their discovery interviews with their future customer base, ready mix concrete makers, they quickly invalidated that idea as it produced a low-quality product that no one wanted. Their first idea was feasible and viable, just not desirable.

The methodology taught us to think first in terms of customers and value proposition, which is usually always second when it comes to CO2 emissions. It’s tempting to go in and say there is a product that has lower emissions and will help the world... but worthless if no one uses it.
Krish Mehta

In true Lean LaunchPad fashion, they set aside their initial goals and instead engaged ready-mix concrete manufacturers to understand their needs and challenges. “We realized that we needed to start with solving the business problem first, and then create additional value through methods that lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs),” Krish said. What they discovered was a desire for easier access to flyash, a coal byproduct with significant benefits when added to concrete, reducing both material usage and GHGs during production. With this insight, team Gremix knew they could resolve their customers pain points and produce more environmentally friendly concrete.

As team Gremix continued their discovery into fly-ash, they seized the chance to visit a cement production site firsthand. Witnessing the immense scale of the operation left a profound impact on Krish and his team. Reflecting on the experience, Krish emphasized, visiting the plant was truly eye-opening. It made it so obvious that any solution that was low carbon had to be scalable and easily available.”

Phoenix Materials was born knowing they needed to source more fly-ash. As they continued their research and interviews, they realized that with the shutting down of coal power plants in the US, there was less fly-ash being produced as a byproduct. Phoenix Materials now understood that their challenge is to find a GHG friendly way to source fly-ash.

They knew their customer base, they knew the customers pain points, and they now figured out how they are going to address it. Phoenix Materials will go to landfills that contain fly-ash, process it, and extract multiple end products from the refining process, including fly-ash to be sold to ready-mix concrete makers. This refining process does take energy, but it still provides a 15% reduction in GHG emissions when compared to concrete.

Krish notes that, by understanding the rest of the value chain, we understood the incentives of the rest of our customers. This mapping was extremely important.” Now, Phoenix Materials has a solution to a problem that is feasible, desirable, and viable, that also provided an environmental benefit. Phoenix Materials is looking to raise 2 million dollars in a pre-seed round to build their pilot and accelerate their go to market.

Innovation for Impact students are on a mission to reduce emissions and electronic waste (e-waste) by revolutionizing the repair process for electronics in Kenya. What started out as a course at Stanford has evolved into a company, Revivo, a business-to-business marketplace for consumer electronic spare parts based in Kenya.

Every year, humans generate approximately 50 million metric tons of e-waste, posing a threat to the environment and human health. While consumer electronics, like cell phones, can be life changing, enabling people to communicate with loved ones, run businesses, make payments, and consume media, these products are expensive and break easily. When they break, not only does it contribute to e-waste, but creating new products to replace them contributes to global emissions.

In Winter 2022, Sarah Johnson, an MBA student at Stanford University, embarked on a mission fueled by passion: to leverage her experience working on sustainable technology in East Africa to tackle the problem of e-waste. Sarah brought this problem to the Hacking for Climate and Sustainability (now known as Innovation for Impact under NobleReach Foundation) course at Stanford University, a transformative course designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools to address critical challenges that our world faces through innovation.

Sarah was drawn to the course’s focus on addressing global issues and fostering collaboration across diverse academic disciplines. It gave her the opportunity to team up and collaborate with students from various backgrounds, including fellow MBA students Jon Karp and Wenxi Duan and Computer Science PhD student Anelise Newman. The team’s reach expanded beyond Stanford University, collaborating with Ritah Nabucha, a teammate based in Kenya. They chose the team name Revivo – a name that reflected their mission of renewal.

The team started with an idea that eventually transformed into a company: How can we create a better repair ecosystem to lengthen the use life of electronics? To maximize their impact, the team chose to focus on West Africa, specifically Kenya, due to the rapidly expanding market for consumer electronics and its status as a tech hub.

In this course, students leverage Lean StartUp, a powerful methodology which involves iterative testing bolstered by real-time stakeholder feedback to rapidly learn and get to solutions quicker and cheaper. The driving force behind this methodology is the “customer discovery” process, where students are challenged to “get out of the building” to conduct interviews with people directly experiencing the problem. Throughout the course, the Revivo team spoke to over 100 individuals, including potential customers, repair technicians, and spare parts dealers, and further validated the high demand for a repair market in Kenya.

This methodology wasn’t just about starting a business; it was about responding to real-world problems, adapting based on feedback from key stakeholders, and understanding our impact.
Sarah Johnson

The team estimated that increasing repairs could reduce emissions by almost 1% and could cut e-waste by up to 50%.After hundreds of interviews and six iterations of minimum viable products (MVPs), the team arrived at their concept—a B2B marketplace for spare parts and a franchise model for repair shops.

Following the course’s conclusion, Sarah resolved to continue championing the vision of Revivo. Armed with the foundational knowledge acquired during the program, she embarked on refining the business model and expanding operations. “The course provided me with the necessary tools and support to bring Revivo from a mere concept to a concrete reality. Without it, Revivo may have only existed as an idea,” Sarah acknowledges. Since completing the course, Revivo has gone on to sell over 45,000 products to thousands of customers and has received grants from Stanford University’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, as well as a $635,000 pre-seed round.

Reflecting on Revivo’s current success and the pivotal role played by the Hacking for Climate and Sustainability course, Sarah offers invaluable advice to future students: “Take advantage of the opportunities this course offers. It goes beyond the realms of academia; it’s a gateway to make real, visible change. You’ll emerge equipped with a profound understanding of how to confront the most urgent environmental crises facing our planet.” Today, Revivo stands as a testament to the transformative potential of educational frameworks that foster real-world applications and student-driven initiatives.