by Constantine von Hoffman
When most people's phones break, all they see is a problem. Privahini Bradoo (MBA 2008) sees an opportunity.
Bradoo is the cofounder and CEO of BlueOak Resources, a company dedicated to finding safe ways to convert the 50 million tons of electronics thrown away globally every year into a sustainable source of metals for the technologies of tomorrow.
BlueOak represents just the sort of fresh thinking that has marked Bradoo's relatively short but notable career path. At age 16, Bradoo left Oman to study biomedical science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, graduating with honors in just three years and going on to complete her PhD in neurogenetics. After earning her MBA from Harvard, Bradoo led commercialization and business development at numerous clean-tech start-ups, including LanzaTech. Then, in 2010, she cofounded BioMine (now BlueOak), which won the 2011 HBS Alumni New Venture Competition.
The competition's judges were struck by the company's smart business plan and how it addressed a very great need. According to the EPA, in 2007 an estimated 29.9 million desktop computers and 12 million laptops were thrown away—that's about 112,000 computers every day.
That same year, overall, 157 million computer products—including CPUs, monitors, keyboards, printers, faxes, and copiers—were scrapped, with only 18 percent recycled. And roughly 126 million cellphones were also discarded, with only 10 percent being recycled.
There is literally gold in those trash hills. "You have these massive, growing piles of e-scrap, which are immensely rich in resources," says Bradoo. "About 10–15 percent of the world's gold supply goes into electronics."
Unfortunately, along with the gold come a lot of poisons. While e-waste accounts for only 2 percent of the trash in American landfills, it is responsible for 70 percent of toxic waste and is the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the United States.
Currently, most e-recycling is done in a very inefficient and hazardous manner. First, it is shipped to China, Africa, and India, where workers, frequently children—with no safety equipment—tear the electronics apart, exposing themselves to lethal doses of toxins. Then the raw materials are shipped back to where they are needed.
Prior to founding BlueOak, Bradoo was teaching about creating value from the end-of-life stream at Google's Singularity University. It was there that she met Bryce Goodman, BlueOak's cofounder, and where he happened upon a photograph that changed her life.
"There was a particular picture of a girl sitting on a pile of e-waste in Guiyu, China, which is the e-waste capital of the world," she says. "There was this dichotomy that, on one hand, a pile of e-waste contains 100 to 200 times as much gold as you can find in ore from the ground, yet in the absence of the right processes, you weren't able to tap into this resource efficiently, or in an environmentally nonhazardous way, or in a way that didn't impact the health of all these children.
"In Guiyu, people have about 250 times the level of lead in their blood compared to neighboring towns, and about 90 percent of the people suffer from neurological disorders. When you look at your phone, you don't think about that being the cost of it. That was the inspiration."
Since its founding, BlueOak has been developing plans for mini-refineries that use proven, capital-efficient refining processes to extract precious metals and rare earth elements from e-waste. The company has just closed on a site in the United States for its first refinery and hopes to have it operating within a year or so.
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