A chance meeting in a freshman physics lecture course spawned friendship — and a startup company — for Mahmood Shaheen and Nathaniel Ortiz.
“I was a little late, looking for a place to sit, and sat right behind Nathaniel,” said Shaheen. “We ended up also being lab partners.”
It was thus natural that when Shaheen, who graduated this June with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering, ran into Ortiz in the HUB, he began forming a team to work on an idea that had been simmering in the back of his head for a while.
“When I moved here from Iraq, I was intrigued by recycling machines that operated like vending machines, where people insert a bottle and the machine returns the recycling value in cash. Later, I listened to a friend who told me how much time she spent recycling bottles on the weekend and thought I could come up with a better system,” said Shaheen.
Shaheen, Ortiz, and some of their friends began to flesh out plans for a waste unit that sorts waste and recyclables at the point of disposal, monitors fullness, and tracks waste data.
“I’ve always been interested in how things work,” said Shaheen. “When I was a kid, I was always disassembling toys to find out how their insides worked.”
With his interest in mechanical engineering and a family background in manufacturing, he figured he could build a better recycling unit, but he needed help.
Ortiz’s interest in electronics complemented Shaheen’s interest in mechanics.
“When I was a kid, a member of my family bought me a Radio Shack electronics kit. I was fascinated by it, and developed a passion for it,” said Ortiz, who grew up in the Coachella Valley and graduated this year with a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering.
Together, and with additional input from fellow UCR students Toluwani (Semi) Cole and Jakeb Tivey, they developed plans and acquired funding to build a prototype solar-powered recycling container that can hold and autonomously sort up to 365 gallons of recyclable materials and report information wirelessly to optimize pickups and waste management. The bin will be paired with a mobile app that lets users receive rewards for depositing recyclables.
Their company, Saru Recycling, received initial funding for its prototype from a pitch session at UCR’s Creat’R Lab Cafe, which helped them secure additional funding and guidance from the campus’ Office of Technology Partnership’s Launchpad program. Bourns College of Engineering officials connected them with alumni and companies that also offered support.
The Covid-19 pandemic threw a brick in their path that delayed but did not hobble the project.
“It was a jolt to switch to online learning,” said Ortiz. “And figuring out how to juggle school, business, and personal time wasn’t easy, either.”
Two team members came down with Covid-19, and the campus shutdown meant there was no office space for business and prototype development. Saru team members had to set up shop in Shaheen’s apartment and garage to develop their idea. And, with everyone staying home, there was little opportunity for public testing of the prototype.
“The pandemic made it hard to test our unit,” said Shaheen. “But we persisted and on July 1st, we’ll have a unit people can try out at Goodwin’s.” Goodwin’s Organics is an organic foods market near campus on Big Springs Road.
Ortiz, however, also credits Covid-19 for improving their teamwork and engineering skills.
“It made us work more closely together, spending late hours on Zoom trying to solve problems with the bin and help each other with classes.”
Shaheen plans to work full-time for Saru in the coming year while studying in UCR’s new robotics Master’s program. Ortiz will continue working for Saru while also working for another company in El Segundo. Both entrepreneurs will join the rest of the Saru team in pursuing additional funding opportunities and working to commercialize their recycling units.