“8 Questions with Playfair” ft. Victor Dewulf @ Recycleye

This is the fifteenth in our “8 Questions” series — in which we sit down with founders in the Playfair portfolio to share their entrepreneurial journey.

Peter Hedley (left) and Victor Dewulf (right) in their second home

We first invested in Victor and Peter, founders of Recycleye, in March 2020. At the time the company was armed with just a v1 treadmill and GoPro to prove their AI-powered recycling solution. Since then, they’ve taken massive steps towards their vision of building the leading European waste management platform. Today, their technology is live in the UK, France and Italy, they have another £3.5m of funding in the bank and a brilliant, growing team of 30.

Today, we sit down with founder and CEO, Victor Dewulf, to hear his story from the beginnings of Recycleye. We hope this can help other founders and aspirational entrepreneurs in their own ventures.

The magic of a Recycleye robot in action

1. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?

During my undergrad, I met a few people who had started businesses whilst studying: a marketing agency, an ice cream chain, an energy drinks company, a tie hire company, and even one selling sex toys online.

Inspired by their stories, I started a business selling electric lighters and it quickly grew to 50 daily sales. The variety of the work whet my appetite for entrepreneurship, and I knew I wanted to do it again.

Later, whilst writing my master’s thesis in Environmental Engineering, topics about processing soil, water and waste seemed less fascinating than my computer science friends’ works surrounding facial recognition and driverless cars. Therefore, my thesis proposed a computer vision system to detect waste and I developed a basic prototype.

Peter (Recycleye’s co-founder) was studying computer vision and taught me how to build models in Python — though I struggled in some parts and used Matlab instead (please don’t tell him).

Dream team: Victor and Peter, co-founders of Recycleye

2. Can you take us back to the beginnings of Recycleye?

What the unfiltered beginning looks like (ft. treadmill)

After gaining commercial traction from my thesis’ prototype, we moved to Peter’s garage to set up a ‘conveyor’ (a £40 treadmill bought from eBay) and went dumpster diving in his neighbourhood to gather a suitably large waste sample. Hence, the first version of Recycleye Vision was born. Our waste scanning operations were then scaled up by transforming my parents’ garden into a waste site. Getting their approval to do so was as difficult as raising funds later!

Living the (outdoor) startup garage dream

I had saved money from my time at Goldman Sachs and Peter during his experience applying computer vision to the art world, so we were both able to bootstrap for 6 months, giving us time to further develop the product and meet customers.

3. What is the hardest lesson learned since day 1?

Take time to select and qualify your first customers. A few tips:

1. Focus on smaller clients, even if large players hold majority market shares. They tend to be more flexible and have less bureaucracy.

2. Prioritise business units over innovation teams. Innovation teams will often ask you for the hardest challenges or systems that don’t necessarily deliver value to their business units (making it harder to double down on sales after your first trial).

Qualifying leads by confirming their budgets, timelines and why they need your product will accelerate the path to product-market fit.

4. What has been your strangest day as a founder?

Getting a call on a Friday from the former manager of an employee (let’s call him Bob) that was due to start work with Recycleye on the Monday. Out of courtesy, the manager kindly let us know that he was taking Bob and another employee to court, as he had caught them smuggling his company’s IP. He shared screenshots of the two accomplices discussing how they could try to circumvent IP clauses in Recycleye’s employment contract — it seemed their plan was to steal the tech stacks of both companies and start another firm. Plenty of evidence was found in a chat between them, on their company’s internal Slack channel — strange day.

5. What have you learned from your investors since you first fundraised?

I knew very little about building a business. Whether through introductions or direct support, our investors have helped us develop a hiring strategy, a sales team, and address the countless challenges we bring them.

One of the key takeaways is that a founder should focus on: 1. Setting a vision, 2. Ensuring there is always money in the piggy bank, 3. Hiring the right people.

6. As a founder, what is your proudest achievement to date?

Dress code: “High Vis” from the Recycleye summer offsite in 2021

The biggest driver of our success is not our software, not our hardware, nor our strategy, but our people. I am incredibly proud of the Recycleye team, which is filled with some of the brightest and most ambitious technologists and creatives I know. Recycleye is succeeding because of them.

Whether it’s installing the first AI-powered waste-sorting robot in England or gaining a share in the EU’s largest innovation grant, working together makes the whole experience incredibly enriching and fun.

Victor onsite with one of Recycleye’s robot installations at Bryson Recycling

7. Crystal Ball: What are your plans for the future?

Commercial expansion into Europe and additions to our core product offering. Recycleye will work towards building an industry where operations are fully automated and strategic decisions are informed by data. We will be successful once the world’s removal chains are fully connected to our supply chains.

Current recycling rates will tell you we still have a long way to go (and space to grow).

8. #1 piece of advice to an aspirational founder?

1. You don’t need the “perfect idea” — most start-ups do things that are already out there (we have had competitors since day 1), it’s more about the execution than the idea.

2. It’s low risk — if you can, give yourself 1 year and if it doesn’t work out, you will have learned tons along the way and can move on.

3. Find yourself a co-founder — the nature of a start-up means you are constantly living through peaks of joy and troughs of despair, having someone to go through these with will make it easier.

You can find out more about Recycleye on their web site and follow them on LinkedIn and Twitter.

You can follow the Playfair team on LinkedIn, Twitter, Forbes and Vimeo and here on Medium. If you would like to pitch us, please submit your application on our website.

Here is also Henrik’s blog on why we originally invested in Recycleye at pre-seed.

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Henrik Wetter Sanchez

Henrik Wetter Sanchez

Principal @PlayfairCapital | prev @Cambridge_Uni @BankofAmerica founder @RendezVu_App