Mar 20, 2024

Making an impact with his actions and artificial intelligence

He always knew what he wanted: to provide support where it makes the most sense. For Andréas von Känel, that is a clean and sustainable environment. As CEO and co-founder of Cortexia, he has been helping to keep cities clean with fewer resources thanks to artificial intelligence since 2016. Over 50 cities in Europe now rely on the solution. And the number is growing. But that's just the beginning: Andréas sees great potential in the circular economy too.

Andréas, what drives you every day?

We are currently still in a linear economy. We consume our resources as if there were no limit. For me, it is therefore a matter close to my heart to support the circular economy and counteract climate change.

After graduating in fluid mechanics from EPFL, you helped develop the Ariane 5 rocket with other engineers in Normandy. After intermediate stations in glass construction and rail maintenance, you led the solar system business of Pasan AG, later Meyer Burger, from small series to mass production as CEO. You were a mentor at Innosuisse, the Swiss Agency for Innovation Promotion. You have been co-founder and CEO of Cortexia since 2016.

What is your biggest learning from all these stages?

In principle, everything is achievable with technology. I see the hurdles more in terms of people. Because in all my jobs, I've increasingly realized that it's the people you have to move. Change is difficult. And this is where I try to get involved with solutions that make sustainable living easier for us humans.

"It's the people you have to move. And this is where I try to get involved - with solutions that make sustainable living easier."

How did you at Cortexia come up with the topic of fleet management and urban cleanliness?

While I was working at Innosuisse, I met the founder of an engineering firm that deals with fleet management for municipalities. One of his customers asked him how many sweepers he needed to keep a city clean. He couldn't answer this simple question and looked into it. He found out that most municipalities routinely have their cleaning vehicles drive to the same places - regardless of whether this is necessary. We thought: we can make a difference here.

"It's very important for me to do something that makes sense."

Together with renowned research partners, you then developed the Cortexia Box. How does the Cortexia Box work and what makes it so valuable?

The Cortexia Box looks simple, but it has it all - and is patented. We developed it in collaboration with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at EPFL. This is one of the world's leading institutes and already understood something about deep learning when only a few people could spell the words. Another important partner was Nvidia. The box is mounted on the city cleaning vehicles. With its camera, it collects and processes vast amounts of data on the cleanliness of the cityscape. All relevant data is then evaluated on our platform and helps with efficient deployment planning.

"Thanks to Cortexia, city cleaning services can work 10 to 20% more efficiently and reduce their CO2 emission."

How can the Cortexia Box distinguish between clean and dirty? Isn't that very subjective?

We are based on the Clean City Index. It was developed in 2000. The Clean City Index uses a sophisticated catalog of different factors to measure a standardized state of cleanliness that is valid for all environments. This state of cleanliness ranges from 0 (dirty) to 5 (clean) and corresponds to the perception of the inhabitants. The Cortexia Box has the advantage that it is intelligent - and can make this distinction based on an automatic comparison of these criteria and the images collected by the camera.

Automation sounds good. What other advantages does the Cortexia Box offer?

In the past, city cleaners simply drove their routes as a matter of routine. With Cortexia, those responsible for cleaning can see where it is clean and where it is dirty. As a result, cleaning is only carried out where it is necessary. This saves valuable resources, the city cleaning service can work more efficiently and reduce the CO2 footprint of its fleet.

Does this mean that the city cleaning service saves fuel?

Yes, and even more. This is because many cities have set themselves the goal of a vehicle fleet that is as carbon-free as possible. However, the purchase costs of electric sweepers are still significantly higher than those of conventional thermal machines. It is therefore very helpful if you can work more efficiently - and thus achieve the same result with fewer vehicles, for example. The Cortexia Box helps with this.

"It is therefore very helpful if you can achieve the same result with fewer vehicles."

What did it mean for you to build up the business independently from nothing?

For me, this initially meant not receiving a salary for almost 3 years (laughs). Fortunately, I was also working as a consultant during this time of building up Cortexia. That helped.

Who was your first customer?

Philip Morris - like other companies, they had to comply with a regulation regarding the disposal of plastic found in cigarette butts. Our first city was Geneva - here we carried out measurements on urban cleaning with people who are forward-looking and made projections.

"Around 50 cities are already working with the Cortexia solution."

In which markets are you represented today?

We now have around 50 cities in Switzerland, France and Germany working with the Cortexia solution and optimizing their city cleaning. And the number is growing all the time.

What are your plans for the future?

We are expanding and bringing our solution to Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. And we are not stopping at city cleaning. Our next vertical is waste recycling - we have received funding for this from the Swiss Accelerator. The aim is to return more organic waste to the circular economy in order to produce gas or compost from it.

"Our next goal is to expand and help return biowaste to the circular economy."

That sounds exciting - how can Cortexia help to bring organic waste back into the cycle?

The challenge lies in the quality of the biomass. To improve the quality, you have to measure it and put a price on it. Today, the municipalities pay for the transportation of green waste, regardless of whether we have high quality or whether there is contamination, for example by plastic. Ideally, the price should one day be linked to the quality of the organic waste. There is still a way to go. But we are currently working on an overall solution for this. I hope that our intelligent Cortexia Box will enable us to detect impurities at the point of origin and thus help to reduce these impurities in the interests of a functioning circular economy.

What does that mean for you and the company?

Above all, a bigger team. In five years, we might be 65 people - so the most important thing for me is to build and develop the team so that it can turn the ideas we have into reality.

"The most important thing for me is to build the team."

You also work remotely. What is the glue that holds your team together?

We work in an agile way, typically in 3-week sprints, at the end of which we conduct a retrospective. This allows us to learn and improve continuously. We also attach great importance to empowering and developing our employees, with lean hierarchies.

Many say they work in an agile way. What is different for you?

We consistently implement the agile methodology at every level of the company.

"We have a very good culture. Our magic formula? The agile methodology, at every level."

So not just in development?

No, almost half of our team works in development. However, I have learned to appreciate agile management, as practiced early on at Hewlett Packard, for example, and implemented it accordingly at Cortexia. We also use the agile methodology in sales and customer support. Thanks to the agile methodology, all employees know where they stand. They are integrated into a clear process - this provides orientation and cohesion. This is especially true remotely, when you don't share the same office every day. The best proof that it works is the joy I feel here and the fact that people stay with us.

Expansion, new markets, new product in the circular economy - where do you see your biggest challenge?

In my view, keeping the focus is the most important thing. Because the temptations are great when you receive inquiries from Brazil or Singapore. But keeping focus also means saying no.

"The best proof that it works is the joy I feel here."

You also speak at conferences organized by Clean Europe Network, Keep Sweden Tidy or the Smart City Day - where can people listen to you this year and on what topics?

I am no longer the only one representing Cortexia to the outside world! The event not to be missed this year is IFAT, the trade fair for the environmental sector. In April, I will also be presenting our approach to improving the quality of biowaste in Germany for the first time, followed by a meeting with the AVPU cities in Lyon on the subject of digitalization.

Thank you, Andréas! For all those who have any further questions or would like to collaborate with Cortexia, please contact Andréas von Känel directly or visit him at one of the conferences mentioned.