In a world increasingly impacted by man-made pollution, restoring oceans and other bodies of water that are most affected is now more important than ever. Boat marinas and other hubs on the water see even greater levels of pollutants, which impact the wildlife and coastal businesses of those areas. So how can we minimize the negative effects of pollutants on these communities? Cincinnati startup Clean Earth Rovers is diving head first into the challenge with their innovative approach to keeping these waterways clean.
“Clean Earth Rovers is a tech company that is focused on restoring our oceans, especially in coastal waterways,” said Founder and CEO Michael Arens. “Every year, our oceans are plagued with both physical, man-made pollutants like plastics, and chemical runoff from agriculture and fertilizers. That creates a heavy impact on coastal businesses, such as marinas, harbors and yacht clubs. What we do is provide those businesses with what we call ‘Roomba for marinas,’ that autonomously skim and automate the clean up and maintenance processes. We want to ensure that their marinas and their waters are safe and clean while they focus on doing their jobs.”
Arens began to ideate the company’s technology after listening to a classmate’s presentation on ocean plastics. And after winning a local pitch competition at Xavier University, Clean Earth Rovers began the push to promote fundraising and bring their product to market. Since then, the company has worked with several Ohio-focused accelerator programs to scale their business.
“Today we’ve raised a quarter million in capital,” Arens said. “And much of that has come from the University of Cincinnati and the 1819 Venture Lab. Some of that has also come through the I-Corps@Ohio program that’s run out of The Ohio State University. And we recently just closed on a $100,000 family and friends round, which is exciting and gives us more runway to keep going. In terms of product and market traction, we are starting to hold pilot customer trials and we’re hoping to start scaling that growth from here on out.”
As they delved deeper into product development, Arens and his team uncovered a hidden need for water data and analysis that emerged in their conversations with marina businesses and potential customers. Arens immediately saw the lack of accessible water data as an opportunity to further innovate their autonomous rover.
“We were doing customer discovery with the marina space, and there was a piece that kept coming up in different conversations that municipalities were actually inquiring with coastal businesses to ask if they had any water data that they could share or contribute to their data sets,” he said. “We realized there’s not a robust infrastructure surrounding water quality monitoring, especially in nearshore and coastal waters and maybe there is something that we could attach to our devices to provide the data to the marinas and municipalities. We’re really excited about this side of the industry because water data can be so crucial when it comes to pollution events like blue-green algae, red tide or E. Coli. It’s such a big public health and safety measure to have access to that data.”
Arens envisions Clean Earth Rovers at the forefront of water data analysis as the company continues to focus on mitigation of marine pollutants. But the startup wants to do more than simple pollution prevention. Currently, the company is developing an initiative to repurpose the plastics that their technology extracts from the water into reusable materials.
“We’re measuring the amount of waste that we’re collecting and pulling out of the water to see how much of it we can feed back into a circular loop of materials,” Arens said. “And we’ve already started to plan for that with a few strategic partnerships. We’re also looking at how much waste is being mitigated from being in the ocean long-term. Through some of our estimates, and if we hit our obtainable market, we could remediate or stop 15 percent of the United States’ annual contribution to ocean plastic.”
Now, the startup is lining up pilots with companies across the country and preparing to fully transition their device to market. And though the startup is striving to make a global difference with their technology, Arens says the entrepreneurial resources in Ohio have been crucial in growing Clean Earth Rovers from the ground up.
“We were able to find multiple levels of support and mentorship through the entrepreneurial program at Xavier University and having that professional presence in Cincinnati is amazing,” he said. “And we would not be in the position we’re in right now if we hadn’t received both monetary and business acumen support from the University of Cincinnati. I-Corps@Ohio is also one of the best accelerator programs we could have participated in because it was so crucial for us to figure out where our technology could fit into the market. We’ve had so many people backing us and being in our corner throughout the past couple years and they’ve been tremendously helpful with getting us to where we’re at.”