What this Louisville native is doing to bring tech into the trash industry

Nate Morris‘ new take on the waste management business has come full circle back to Louisville, where his idea was born to recreate the way we deal with trash.

Morris and a childhood friend, Marc Spiegel, met at Eastern High School almost two decades ago. But back then, they didn’t know they’d eventually start a multimillion-dollar business.

“Marc’s family had been in the waste-management [business] for more than 100 years,” Morris explained. “We decided with Marc’s legacy knowledge and where tech is going in the future, that we would have the opportunity to really innovate and transform where the [waste-management] business was going.”

The two launched Rubicon LLC, an alternative trash company, in 2008 in Louisville and signed Papa John’s International Inc. and Buckhead Mountain Grill as some of their first clients. They started the company on a shoestring budget — $10,000 on a credit card.

Rubicon didn’t really get off the ground until a big investor from Atlanta took notice in 2010. Morris moved the company’s headquarters to Atlanta at the behest of the investor, and that’s where it’s been since, collecting investors and growing the business.

The private company now is valued at $800 million, according to a recent Forbes article, and has more than 300 employees.

Here’s the Rubicon concept:

The company is selling an environmentally friendly alternative to typical trash pickup. Rubicon’s website says that Americans throw away $11 billion worth of recyclable material each year.

Rubicon works with local waste-management companies to do something with your trash other than bury it in a landfill. Companies that hire Rubicon can use the app or website to request a trash pickup by one of the hauler companies with which Rubicon contracts.

Basically, the smaller local companies become Rubicon’s workforce and Rubicon becomes their sales team. Morris said the contracts that Rubicon wins would not normally be won by a small trash company.

Rubicon also works with recycling and salvage businesses to figure out how to divert as much trash as possible from the landfill. Sometimes that means repurposing material, and sometimes it means working to put all of the compostable trash through the anaerobic digestion process.

Rubicon can dispose of trash more cheaply than typical waste-management companies because it does not operate the hauling side of the business, nor does it rent space in a landfill like normal trash companies. Morris said Rubicon customers save, on average, 15 percent to 20 percent in annual trash pickup costs.

“We’re offering [customers] the opportunity to have a choice in their waste,” Morris said.

Rubicon has been touted as the “Uber of trash,” which is particularly apt because Morris has worked with the founding CTO of Uber, Oscar Salazar, and a past Uber CFO, Brent Callinicos, both of whom are still on the Rubicon board.

“The Rubicon product is essentially two things: helping companies reduce the cost of waste and recycling and helping companies recycle more,” Morris said.

Rubicon doesn’t quantify how much trash it has kept out of landfills, but Morris said that’s always the mission.

“It’s really all about resource allocation,” he said.

Morris said he started the company because he saw how ineffective the current trash-collection model is at mitigating environmental concerns — not to mention the poor customer service of some of the largest trash companies in the U.S., he said.

No matter where you stand on different issues, he said, pretty much everyone can see that trash is a problem.

“I believe that we have the opportunity to speak on environmental solutions for business in a way that is not contentious in a very contentious world,” he said. “Regardless of your politics or your opinions on climate change, we know that trash is an epidemic.”

Recently, the company raised $50 million to start expanding into new markets. That’s why the company is refocusing on Louisville after all these years.The Rubicon team is working on scaling up the Louisville operation, trying to get the word out about the services and signing on more haulers and businesses. So far, the company is working with two haulers — Jeffersonville-based Eco-Tech LLC and one other that didn’t wish to be identified — and it contracts with about 70 local companies.

Part of that $50 million will go to the expansions into new cities, and some of it will go to expanding Rubicon’s sales team outside of Atlanta, where all the sales employees are currently based. Most of the money will go to research and development of technology to help them be more efficient.

Rubicon works in all 50 states and in 16 countries, Morris said. He also plans to announce expansions into two other U.S. cities later this month.

On a national level, the company works with 5,000 small hauling companies and holds contracts with major national brands such as Under Armor, Lumber Liquidators and 7-Eleven.

“It’s great to be connected to home,” Morris said. “It’s something that was cooked up right in our back yard in Kentucky.”

This article originally appeared in Louisville Business-First on February 3, 2017 and was written by Bridgett Weaver, a reporter who covers technology, banking, entrepreneurs and retail.

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