Turning Waste into Energy, One Community at a Time

Adeyemi By Kathryn O’Neill, courtesy of News@MITSloan

On a good day, residents in Lagos, Nigeria, get eight hours of electricity—far from enough for a rapidly growing city of 18 million. To address this shortfall, students from across MIT have teamed up to launch a waste-to-energy company that will provide Lagos residents with cheap, reliable electricity.

“Lagos has a severe waste problem, severe unemployment, and an environmental problem. Millions of people are running diesel generators on a daily basis,” said Adetayo “Tayo” Bamiduro, an MIT Sloan MBA ’15 student from Nigeria. The company the students founded, NovaGen Power Solutions, aims to supply biogas to apartment buildings while providing local jobs. “The impact is social, environmental, and economic,” Bamiduro said.

The brainchild of Adeyemi “Yemi” Adepetu, a student in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, NovaGen will collect organic waste from apartments and convert it into biogas to fuel generators. The system will be piloted this summer at a seven-unit building and scaled up to 10 buildings, serving 70 units in total. If the pilot succeeds, the next step would be for NovaGen to equip all 210 units managed by their partner real estate company, Property Mart Real Estate Investment.

“We think what’s available is too expensive,” Adepetu said. “Our idea was: Look at the technology out there, build locally, and make it affordable for people.”

While NovaGen will employ existing technology, it has a novel strategy, Bamiduro said. “The innovation is our business model. We’re not targeting large businesses or customers one by one. We’re looking for that sweet spot,” he said, wherein 20-70 families share one waste-to-energy system. “That’s why we picked real estate.”

The fledgling company has racked up a number of successes in entrepreneurship competitions. The team—which also includes Ellen Chen, a Master’s in City Planning (MCP) candidate in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning—was a semifinalist this spring in the MIT Africa Innovate Business Plan Competition, the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, and the MIT $100K Pitch and Launch Entrepreneurship Competitions (emerging markets track).

Adepetu was recently named a finalist for the 2014 Echoing Green Climate Fellowship, which supports next-generation social entrepreneurs committed to working on innovations in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Adepetu also has a Legatum Fellowship that supports his work on NovaGen and is supported by the MasterCard Foundation.

Born and raised in Nigeria, Adepetu said the idea for the company had been percolating for a long time before he came to MIT and was inspired to act. “I thought [NovaGen] was 10 years away. MIT was the crucial influence that took me from the corporate world,” said Adepetu, who spent several years working for United Technologies. “Before MIT… I thought I’d do this when I was done with my first career.”

At MIT last fall, Adepetu met Chen in New Enterprises, a class designed to help students launch startups. “I wanted to do something in emerging markets and Yemi’s was the only idea in a developing country,” said Chen, whose interest in housing inspired the idea of targeting residential real estate. Adepetu had originally envisioned serving hospitals.

Bamiduro was the next team member to join NovaGen, bringing with him crucial, up-to-date contacts with the Lagos business community. (Adepetu had been out of the country for nine years, but Bamiduro had just left a lead analyst role in Nigeria’s oil and gas industry.) Bamiduro said his goal in attending MIT was to gain the skills necessary to create “a high impact energy venture that would employ a lot of people.”

NovaGen’s founders credited the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship for first believing in their idea, as well as the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, MIT Africa Interest Group, and the student club Energy for Human Development with giving them opportunities to meet mentors and connect to others with a passion for energy and the developing world. “The ecosystem at MIT Sloan gives you the chance to test your ideas vigorously,” Bamiduro said. The MIT D-Lab group has also been a source of mentorship and advice, he added.

All three founders are committed to a future with NovaGen—although Chen won’t graduate until December, and Bamiduro won’t complete his degree until 2015. Adepetu, who will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in engineering and management, said he expects to spend the next couple years building the company in Nigeria, but the long-term plan for NovaGen is to build a U.S.-based multinational company. For now, the founders are actively seeking early seed investors, mentors, and additional business partners to help them move forward.

Adeyemi “Yemi” Adepetu