The startup Rural Urban has a twofold vision: to build a zero-waste nation and to bridge the digital divide. Headed by Vivian Vickneswaran Renganathan and Karishma Mehta, the startup collaborates with companies and individuals to make use of their electronic and plastic waste, converting them into 100% recycled computers sold at a low cost.
Engaging both the electronics industry as well as waste management and recycling, Rural Urban works with schools and organisations to collect the materials they no longer need. The team then assembles the recycled products before outsourcing the completion of the products to engineering companies.
The key is to intervene in the waste disposal process by collecting still-functioning parts before they are incinerated. Vicknesh explains, “In Singapore, we often discard electronics even if they’re still functioning, simply because we want faster or newer models. But what we throw away isn’t really waste, and actually has value we don’t recognise.” The surplus of plastic and electronic ‘waste’ could then be matched with the demand for low-cost computers in emerging nations.
How It All Started
The idea sparked when founding members Vicknesh and Karishma were having issues with their own computers. Lamenting the heavy cost of purchasing new ones, they sought out alternative solutions, discovering that upgrading an existing computer could be done for less than 8% of the cost of a new one. They then researched the ins and outs of computer hardware and taught themselves how to upgrade computers, successfully improving their own. Inspired by this, they began buying old computers online, upgrading and reselling them at low price points.
However, upgrading was still a costly process, so the team explored ways to drive the cost down further. Karishma, who studied pharmaceutical engineering, used her knowledge of materials to realise that the local surplus of plastic waste could be incorporated into the product.
The Digital Divide
While conducting market research, they discovered that consumers’ two main concerns when buying old computers were affordability and performance. They also discovered the problem of the ‘digital divide’, which refers to the gap in access to technology faced by certain communities, whether it be emerging nations or lower income groups within a more developed nation. The growing absence of laptops and computers showed that there was a great demand for such products, yet it remained unfulfilled. Thus, the team saw their computers as a potential solution to this divide.
By stepping in on the disposal process and salvaging electronic material before they are reduced to scrap, they could drive down the costs of producing functional computers and sell them at more affordable price points to these communities. Thus, they were able to address two problems at once: a social problem and a waste problem.
Experience during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Vicknesh explains how the pandemic further opened their eyes to the realities of the digital divide: “We thought it was only an issue in the poorest countries, but then we realised it was happening right here at home too. When home-based learning became a norm, it was found that many students lacked the appropriate devices for these lessons.” Even beyond the context of the pandemic, such students would have already been behind the curve, lacking access to educational resources as they could not easily access the internet at home.
This accelerated the Rural Urban’s journey as they worked towards meeting the rising demand in the local market. Making the best out of the pandemic, the team managed to sell off their entire inventory, though they did their part for those in need by keeping costs low. Nevertheless, the company generated profits which allowed them to work on their idea further. Additionally, the experience gave them a first-hand understanding of the business and economic side of things, such as the market and demand for used laptops and computers.
Rural Urban & NTUitive
The team first participated in the ideasinc competition over 3 years ago, well before the idea of upgrading computers was sparked, “We just went in with an idea, for the experience, and didn’t get very far,” admitted Vicknesh. “We had misconceptions about how much there really was to know about entrepreneurship, but we quickly realised in those two weeks that there was much to catch up on.”
Following that experience, the team began taking more business courses, in areas such as accounting, finance and marketing. It was only three years later, in September 2020, that the team came back to ideasinc 2020 as Rural Urban. ideasinc 2020 was by then a nationwide startup challenge run by NTUitive to groom promising ideas into viable businesses. This time, Rural Urban made it into the top 30.
As part of the top 30, the team participated in many workshops and received a $10,000 Multidisciplinary Team Fund grant, as well as access to co-working space in the NTU Innovation Centre where NTUitive was located. They were also assigned a mentor who guided them on running a business.
“Our mentor was pretty different,” Vicknesh recounts. “Running a startup can be stressful, and people always stress on how everything is working against you. But our mentor was chill and reassuring – he told us to just try, and if something doesn’t work, to try something else. We actually really needed to hear that.”
“NTUitive has been a great help in general; with their staff always in contact and we have never been turned down when we ask for anything,” says Vicknesh. “When we were exploring the viability of using plastic in our product, NTUitive got us in touch with NTU’s Materials Science department. It was there that we got the confirmation on the most suitable way forward.”
Besides this, NTUitive also provided the team with 200 hours of student talent, which could be used to support the development of any area. So far, the team has engaged three student talents from the Computer Science department to help build a platform for the company.
What’s Next for Rural Urban?
Currently, the team is working on developing their product. One consideration is the issue of frequent power outages in emerging nations. Thus, the team plans to integrate a cell that allows their computers to run for a period of time even after such an outage.
In the long term, the team intends to have their own production facility instead of outsourcing, preferably in one of the emerging nations where the product demand is, allowing them to save on shipping and production costs. “We’re actually really interested in India,” says Vicknesh, due to the huge market, lower labour costs, and the current push towards digitalising the nation. The team hopes to be able to move their operations there in about three to four years.
For now, however, the startup is working on their first order. “It’s challenging now because we’re still students, but our goal is to minimise outsourcing and do it by ourselves as much as possible. With this first order, we’ll learn more about the process and how to get it right.”
Moving forward, the team hopes to work with more local companies, informing them not to throw away their electronic materials, but to instead use those materials to produce recycled computers and reduce waste production.
For more information, check out their Instagram at @ruralurban.sg (or the link here).