Written by Clary Estes for the Lane Report on February 12, 2018
Nate Morris is not afraid to get his hands dirty. As founder of innovative tech company Rubicon Global, Morris credits his background as a Kentucky native for helping bring working-class heartland citizens together with opportunity provided by technology developments in New York and Silicon Valley to solve one of today’s most pressing environmental issues: waste disposal.
Rubicon is a “disrupter” with an app, but isn’t your typical tech company.
Founded in 2008 in Louisville, its mission is to “disrupt the waste and recycling industry and create less expensive, more sustainable solutions.” Rubicon’s cloud-based technology connects people and businesses with waste haulers and processors, reduces the waste stream going to landfills, increases recycling, and promotes development of more diverse forms of waste management in American communities. Its RUBICONSmartCities product tracks and shares waste disposal data from businesses and data on city infrastructure.
The endeavor has been so successful that the company has been valued at more than $1 billion as of September 2017 after receiving a $50 million investment by the Mexican private equity firm, Promecap. And that was not the first eight-figure vote of financial confidence.
Rubicon created a mobile app that “connects haulers to customers, streamlines billing, and verifies waste reporting like never before.” The app works similarly to the way that Uber and Lyft operate, connecting businesses directly with waste haulers to better optimize trash pick-up and disposal.
For example, an independent hauler contacts Rubicon with their services and service area and Rubicon connects them with small businesses in the area, as well as waste processing companies to create an independent network of operations. Additionally, with the Rubicon app, businesses have access to real-time information on everything from hauler routes to what kind of trash they are producing so that they can better optimize how they dispose of their waste.
One of the ways Rubicon is able to save clients money is by addressing the issue of landfill usage. “The biggest waste management providers – which handle 65 percent of all U.S. waste – are landfill companies,” according to Rubicon’s website.
A monopoly of three companies that has dominated U.S. waste disposal and management since the 1960s makes money charging customers rent on their landfill property and has no incentive to move to a business model that promotes innovation and new waste disposal methods. Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections have market capitalizations totaling more than $70 billion, according to Forbes.
Greener disposal options cost less
“They have an outdated, asset-heavy model that pays them twice for every customer – once when they pick up trash, and once when they dump it in the landfills they own,” Rubicon’s site states. “It’s a grossly inefficient industry that thrives on continual price increases, too-frequent pickup schedules and zero billing transparency.”
Rubicon provides haulers and businesses access to a greater diversity of waste-processing organizations. Rather than landfill rental fees, many businesses find they can pay less to send their waste stream to new processing companies that, through recycling or anaerobic digestion, produce a usable output. Rubicon Connect app customers gain more control over how their waste collection is managed.
“Imagine,” says the voiceover in a Rubicon online video, “if you could get real time updates on when your trash was collected, rate the driver that services your business and automate your payment online. Rubicon Connect enables you to toggle between your waste collection and payment information and includes features that help you save money and divert waste.
“Once you get started, you can set up direct payments. At any time you can view all your invoices and your current service requests. You can even request additional dumpster collections during peak periods. Rubicon Connect will also be your direct line to Rubicon’s dedicated support team and those drivers who provide the service.”
Waste has analytics.
“You’ll even be able to assess the make-up of your waste,” the voiceover continues. “You can snap a photo of your dumpster to receive an instant waste assessment. With the results, you’ll be able to tell whether you’ll need containers for different waste streams like recycling.”
Garbage truck as data center
Using the system Rubicon developed, entrepreneur haulers are able to expand their service areas independent of the major waste management providers. It’s created a space for new waste-processing companies to develop and grow, supports more sustainable waste-management practices, and saves businesses money as a result of the diversified marketplace.
The platform has accrued over 700,000 user service locations across the United States in the nine years it has been operating.
Rubicon’s model generates revenue at many levels, from contracts with small local businesses to find more cost-effective waste disposal methods; from multimillion-dollar contracts with larger partners like Wegmans, 7-Eleven, and Lumber Liquidators to streamline waste disposal on a large scale; from work with government entities to better address city infrastructure issues; as well as from large multinationals like Suez Environmental of France so it can grow abroad.
In 2016 Rubicon launched a small and medium business channel. SMB organic growth increased more than 300 percent in 2017 and the company reports it expects to have almost 5,000 SMB customers in 2018.
The RUBICONSmartCities platform is now used in 19 cities, and integrates data to drive efficiency while responding to citizen demands. In effect, Rubicon equips local trash haulers with the technology to document and monitor different metrics on how a city operates.
“What you know as a garbage truck, we know as a roaming data center. We are using our app-based technology to become your city’s eyes and ears,” Rubicon marketing info advises. Installed into a city’s garbage trucks, SmartCity can improve vehicle management, including navigation and route optimization, and automate service confirmations for trash and recycling collection. Drivers can relay as they happen issues such as contaminated bins, vacant homes, potholes and graffiti hot spots. SmartCity portal dashboard data can go in real time to the right departments to upgrade government services delivery, improve infrastructure decisions and more.
The two-part business model of waste disposal and information technology development is diversifying more sustainable growth for Rubicon, which is setting its sights on international growth via a recently developed partnership with the French water treatment and waste disposal multinational, Suez Environment.
Kentucky sensibility builds business bridges
Morris credits his upbringing for creating the foundation for his cause-based entrepreneurial spirit.
“I learned a great deal from my mother, who was a single mother, and my grandfather, who was a UAW union leader, about the importance of supporting American workers, as well as giving back to my community,” Morris said.
That perspective led him to recognize that if the U.S. were going to address its environmental issues and continue to support the ever-growing technology and industrial sectors, it needed to come together around an issue that touches everyone. Morris envisioned this common ground in the waste disposal industry.
“There has to be an issue that can bring everybody in the U.S. together,” he said. “Whether you are Republican or Democrat, less garbage is a good thing, recycling is a good thing, and if we can empower small business to get more opportunities while we do that, then it is a win for everyone.”
Morris is a Republican with an expansive history of political work who works now in a field largely occupied by more left-leaning groups. As a result, however, he has been able to diversify the way that the environmental issue is being addressed in the United States. Morris has attracted investors from both sides of the aisle, whether they are actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff or the Goldman Sachs investment bank.
The environmental movement has been too coastal and, to some degree, too elite and left behind many small-town Americans who may have been interested in contributing to the movement but felt excluded from the conversation, in Morris’ view.
“For years we’ve left a lot of our knowledge base (middle America) out of the tech world because there is a big culture clash and difference in world view,” he said, “but I believe with things like the shared economy and businesses like Amazon (which has been dominant outside places like California and New York), it shows that there is tremendous opportunity in places people have never looked before. It’s exciting.”
Growing tech in mid-America
In a country constantly being told how different the left and the right are from each other, Rubicon Global suggests how much we have in common and how much we can achieve if we work together.
“The only people who are against what we are doing are the large waste collection companies who have dominated this industry for generations,” Morris said.
Rubicon is able to promote this bipartisan method for environmental and economic development because a founding tenet of the company is the democratization of the waste disposal industry. “Rubicon can’t do it alone,” Morris says. His hope is that as Rubicon grows it can sow the seeds of further work in its partners, in the technology, environmental and industrial sectors, and the next generation of entrepreneurs.
In a very foundational way, the democratization principle Rubicon stands by is a direct result of Morris’ Kentucky roots.
“I felt like there was going to be another wave of technological revolution in the U.S. where the technology and industrial worlds would eventually meet,” he said. “Places like Kentucky are ideally suited to start those kinds of tech-industrial businesses.”
Rubicon’s model promotes simultaneous growth of multiple sectors, from small business to large corporations and from environmental sustainability researchers to tech developers and beyond, and makes it unique not just in the industrial sector but in the technology sector as well.
“The adage in the tech industry has been that you build great tech and the industry changes for you,” Morris said. “What we’ve learned is that if you want to be successful in developing tech for the industrial world, you have to prove yourself in the industrial space by building scale. That takes a long time and sometimes longer than most venture capitalists are willing to invest on the coast.”
To the halls of power and back home
Morris took his understanding of American politics, his international experiences, his passion for the environment and his love of his home state of Kentucky to build a company that is unequivocally shaking things up. Morris spent time studying and working in Washington D.C., getting his undergraduate degree at George Washington University and working at the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, the Department of Labor and the White House. He became a lecturer at Beijing International Studies University, then worked on a graduate degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
But he never forgot Kentucky.
“Kentucky has given us so much,” says Morris, “This is where my family is. It was a natural fit for us to start Rubicon in this state.”
It was Kentucky investors who built the foundational structure of Rubicon before national investment came.
“We have a who’s who roster of some of the most successful Kentucky business people who have helped us get started,” Morris said. “They believed in us. They believed in the business. Many of them had not invested in technology before, but they took a chance on us and it created a space for more investors to come in later.”
As Rubicon grew and eventually moved its headquarters to Atlanta, it retained its Kentucky identity. Morris still lives in Lexington and works intimately with the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky, where he is the entrepreneur in residence and helped develop the Social Enterprise Scholar Program for UK’s business school students. Rubicon maintains a small sales office in Kentucky, as well as a number of Kentucky users that it can add to its national roster.
The Rubicon idea gestated in Morris’ mind for many years before he started the company with his longtime friend, Marc Spiegel, with whom he attended Eastern High School outside of Louisville and whose family worked in the waste disposal business for nearly a century. After nine years the two-man operation has grown to employ over 300 people.
When it comes right down to it, a Kentucky boy with a good idea may just be the catalyst needed to put the United States on the right track to effectively address our environmental sustainability needs, as well as the development of industry into the 21st century, together rather than divided.