smart city tech

City of Houston partners with digital waste, recycling solutions company

Mayor Sylvester Turner says this new smart city technology partner will help digitize and optimize waste operations. Photo via rubicon.com

The City of Houston announced that it has entered into a three-year partnership with Kentucky-based Rubicon with the goal of improving its waste, recycling, and heavy-duty municipal fleet operations.

According to a statement, the city has installed the company's RUBICONSmartCity platform on the Solid Waste Management Department’s 391 vehicles, and has trained the workforce on using the SaaS software.

“Partnering with Rubicon will help our great city optimize its solid waste operations and make it possible for us to digitize our entire waste and recycling management system,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “The City of Houston is committed to providing the highest level of service to its residents and this partnership will allow us to provide better services, save taxpayer dollars, and deliver a better quality of life for Houstonians.”

RUBICONSmartCity is a cloud-based suite that will allow the department's workforce to track key metrics about pickup, including issues at the curb and recycling contamination, as well as information about its fleet of vehicles. The platform includes a mobile app, an onboard data collection device, and a web-based portal.

The city envisions that information collected by RUBICONSmartCity will enhance reporting tools used by 311 and give the department a better understanding of what's happening in the field.

“The City’s Department of Solid Waste can use this information to advise and educate residents around service scheduling, best practices for waste and recycling management, and reduce costly return trips,” Solid Waste Management Department Director Mark Wilfalk said in a statement. “These insights, alongside route optimization and digitization efforts, are set to deliver an optimal operation to the City of Houston.”

RUBICONSmartCity is used in more than 70 cities across the U.S., including San Antonio. The product was the focus of a 2021 Amazon documentary entitled "The Road to Zero Waste," which focused on Rubicon's work in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Our partnership with the City of Houston is off to a fantastic start, as we were able to install our products and train the entire Solid Waste Department’s workforce in only 73 days, an incredibly fast turn for such an undertaking,” Michael Allegretti, Chief Strategy Officer at Rubicon, said in a statement. "This partnership comes at a critically important time, as Houston and other cities across the nation look to maintain, and ultimately expand, service levels.”

In August 2021, the City of Houston also launched HTX Collects, a mobile app aimed at helping residents keep track of weekly services, updates, and waste collection days. At that time, the city estimated that it collected curbside service for over 395,000 residential homes within the city limits.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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