9 September, 2020
First published in The Spinoff.
Each year thousands of tonnes of zinc and acid are dumped into landfill as by-products from galvanising. This year’s winner of the Callaghan Innovation C-Prize challenge, Zincovery, is trying to solve that problem with its innovative recycling technology.
It’s almost impossible to go a day without using a galvanised product of some kind. Every time you drive your car, hang out your washing or flick on a light, part of that process has been made easier by galvanising. It’s not a particularly glamorous or complicated process – coating steel and iron in a protective layer of zinc – but without it, so much of our infrastructure and the items we rely on would corrode. The cost of constantly replacing power poles, street lamps, car parts and iron roofs would be enormous.
But despite being an industry dedicated to prolonging the life of our steel products, galvanising creates a lot of waste in other areas. Before being dipped in the zinc coating, the steel is washed in acid and this acid eventually becomes contaminated with dissolved metals. As it’s hard to separate the acid from the metals, it ends up being discarded and poured into landfills.
So in 2018, Jonathan Ring made the decision to return to university for his master’s degree, giving up his dairying job on the West Coast after being approached by a professor with an idea to recycle the galvanising industry’s waste. Now he’s the CEO and co-founder of Zincovery, winning Callaghan Innovation’s 2019/2020 C-Prize and $100,000 for the development of its technology.
The 2019/2020 C-Prize called for environmental tech innovations to tackle global problems related to climate change, clean water and resource use for their biannual challenge and mentoring programme. Spun out from the University of Canterbury and supported by the MacDiarmid Institute, Zincovery’s pursuit of a smarter way to use the waste resources created during the galvanising process meant it was an ideal initiative to enter into the C-Prize.
Made up of Ring and University of Canterbury engineering Professor Aaron Marshall, Zincovery developed a process that recovers the precious zinc and regenerates the acid for reuse and reducing waste in the process. Ring says he saw the C-Prize challenge as a chance not only to develop his idea but his own business skills as well.
“I realised really early on that I’m not well connected in the business world. I also lack a lot of business skills, so I need to do everything I can to try and change that,” he says.
“That’s why the C-Prize challenge was so attractive because we got in contact with industry experts through Callaghan Innovation’s startup networks.”
When Covid-19 hit, Ring says it forced him to rethink the industry’s accessibility to the technology for zinc recovery and acid reuse. He realised he needed his product to be affordable to companies who may need to save some costs, especially at a time when the pandemic is taking a toll on company profits.
“For a long time, we were looking at selling equipment to galvanisers. However, Covid-19 has dried up a lot of the availability of capital for these people. We realise now that the easiest and best way for us to get into the market is to deliver a service for the industry that’s going to save them money, is environmentally friendly, and doesn’t require them to change their existing operations.”
Throughout the mentoring process of the C-Prize challenge, Ring was surprised with how many hats he ended up wearing. With no background in business, he learnt a lot about resilience and the importance of giving everything a go.
“Over the last year or two, there have been so many skills that I’ve had to learn on the job and it’s awesome, but it can also be really difficult at times. You end up failing a lot and having to learn the hard way, which takes some resilience, to pick yourself up and go again until you get the right result.”
After years of hard work developing Zincovery, the business is now ready to grow. With the $100,000 C-Prize award money, it’s looking for a new hire: an engineering project manager to join the team and allow Ring to focus on running the business. The Zincovery team now has its sights set on opening its first commercial plant in New Zealand next year and is planning to have its first capital raise next month, hoping to gain some investors to help this plan come to fruition.
As social and environmental responsibility become increasingly important, Ring says he’s optimistic about the future of Zincovery and environmental development for these big industries. He says he wants to drive change in the way industries think about waste and hopes this is just the start of his journey as an entrepreneur.
Ring also has ambitious plans for the next few years, including in the environmental tech space.
“In 10 years I see myself as having successfully completed our mission for Zincovery and moving onto the next great idea. Once I started on this business journey, I’ve come up with ideas, both within the scope of the business and outside of it, that I want to pursue, particularly around improving industrial processes and large chemical waste, which I think can make a huge difference to the way we live.”