Michelle Goetsch started Betterbin in 2018, and now her business is changing the way people recycle.
Betterbin uses data and technology to change how consumers understand what to do with product packaging at its end of life. Recycling can be very complicated. Betterbin’s proprietary machine learning algorithms are able to identify product-specific packaging materials and cross-reference those material types with local recycle guidelines. Consumers can then retrieve brand-level, product-specific recycling or disposal instructions relevant to their local recycling program.
Betterbin initially commercialized as a consumer-facing app. App users are able to scan the UPC barcode of a product, or text search for a product to retrieve local recycling instructions. Now, in addition to the app product, Betterbin’s market focus has expanded to providing a Data-As-A-Service product for grocery retailers and any ecommerce platform that sells or showcases consumer products.
The focus is not the only thing that has expanded. The team itself, which started with only Michelle, has now grown to include Ian Miller, CTO and data scientist, and Erik Miller-Galow, a full stack developer, as well as a small team of contractors. But just because they are a small team, doesn’t mean they don’t have the grit to accomplish big things, Michelle said. “One of the obstacles to any start-up is understanding the ups and downs of the process and having the drive to keep going. I believe that a start-up won’t fail until a founder quits. Environmental responsibility has always been a passion of mine, and my own frustration with what was the ‘right’ thing to do with packaging inspired me to get started. The environmental responsibility mission keeps all of us going.”
Another barrier the company faced was the fact that the problem they were solving, sustainably managing packaging waste, has been viewed more as a social impact business and less of a money-maker. It was difficult to attract Wisconsin investment until Michelle realized the need to connect with like-minded investors. Now that Betterbin is much better acquainted with important stakeholders in the national sustainable waste management community, partnerships and growth opportunities are easier to accomplish.
Michelle feels grateful to have had so much support along the way to opening the business. “Ideadvance funding from Stages 1 and 2 got us off the ground. We would not exist without them,” Michelle said. The Stage 1 programs offered through Wisconsin Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) are designed to reduce business and technical risk so small business owners can attract customers, partners or other critical funding milestones. The Stage 2 funding assists with expanding customer acquisition and follow-on funding strategies.
“Ideadvance really helped me figure out how to tell the story I needed to tell. I did not yet have the entrepreneur mindset of how to explain the problem and describe how I was the best person to solve it. I learned to describe not only how our solution would work, but also how it would make money. Ideadvance gave me the boost to first research and then prove that other experts agreed the problem even existed,” Michelle said. “The CTC program helped me go from novice to getting my foot in the door with investors.”
CTC, and their Ideadvance program, was just one of the resources Michelle found to get started. “I networked like crazy to get connected in the Madison entrepreneurship ecosystem.” She met with Doyenne, UW-Madison Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Food Finance Institute (FFI), FaBcap and others.
“Doyenne connected me with lawyers, accountants and other professionals. We had the chance to pitch at their 5x5x5 contest and won!” Michelle said with excitement in her voice. The 5x5x5 features 5 women-led ventures, each given 5 minutes to pitch their idea, and the winner receives a $5000 grant. Michelle got emotional when talking about her work with Doyenne co-founder, the late Amy Gannon. “When everyone else thought I was just nuts and I simply needed someone in my corner, Amy was rooting for me,” she said with tears in her eyes.
At the SBDC, this entrepreneur worked with trusted mentor Michelle Somes-Booher. “Michelle was great! She made it safe for me to let my guard down and admit when I didn’t know how to proceed. She gave me real answers and real feedback on how to move forward.”
“Through FFI, I learned a lot about capitalization, growing a business and value proposition. Seeing how to build a business model and meeting a network of other entrepreneurs was very helpful,” Michelle said. “Brad Rostowfske, who works with FFI’s FaBcap program, helped me realize the importance of consumer product brand demand and loyalty and how it relates to packaging.”
Even more support came when Betterbin participated in the Hatch Pitch contest and again when they were accepted to the Plug and Play Sustainability Accelerator in Silicon Valley during 2020, while the COVID pandemic was at its height. “The Hatch Pitch event gave us lots of exposure and the chance to talk with Wisconsin-based investors. Since the pandemic severely limited in-person meetings and travel – even the Plug and Play event was virtual – we used the time to rebuild our product while conducting virtual customer and investor discovery,” Michelle said.
“We also worked with CTC to obtain microgrant funding, which led to us applying for the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The CTC assistance was huge! Even though we weren’t awarded the SBIR grant this time, we learned a ton from the experience and are excited to apply again in the future,” Michelle said.
Indeed, the future looks bright for Michelle and the Betterbin team. “Our work first began with the Marathon County Solid Waste Director, which was critical to our finding our first customers. The Village of Weston and City of Madison came onboard to pilot our MVP product,” Michelle said. The Betterbin app now has about 15 recycle and compost programs onboard, with about five thousand app users across the country who have searched for about 40,000 products.
Accomplishments with UW-Madison SBDC and CTC and FFI
- Ideadvance Stages 1 & 2
- Business strategy
- FFI Fellows
- Resources referrals
- Value proposition