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Arthur Kay: Guardian sustainable business leader of the year 2015

Thu, 30 April 2015

Designing cities efficiently and effectively is what drew Kay to waste management – a sector to which he would like to bring ‘rigour and ambition’
'A good measure of a leader is the team they have assembled around them. Arthur Kay has gone from being an architecture student with a big idea, to a CEO of a biofuel company, employing a team of 20 and raising over £2m in financing in just two years. 
But rather than employ all his pals from UCL, Kay – 24, turning 25 this November – is the second youngest person in his company. He has, from the very start, identified the skills sets and expertise needed to make his big idea – extracting biofuel from waste coffee grounds – a reality.
“Essentially we started out with an unproven technology, an unproven supply chain, an unproven business model and certainly an unproven entrepreneur,” he says. “There were a number of different mountains to climb.” He therefore recruited a team of all the talents, including one of the only people in the UK with a PhD in bio-mass pelleting, alongside corporate financiers and oil extraction specialists.
Bio-bean’s 20,000 square foot production plant in Cambridgeshire takes waste coffee – primarily from instant coffee factories and high street coffee shops – and turns it into bio-diesel and bio-mass pellets – mainly for powering urban transport and industrial boilers. Using a patented biochemical process, the 15-20% oil content in waste coffee can be extracted; the remaining 80-85% is then dried, turned into bio-mass pellets and burned as an cleaner alternative to wood chips.
Kay has always aimed big. He has no interest in cycling around in a hemp shirt, collecting buckets of coffee from independent retailers (not that he doesn’t work with them too). “Our facility has the capacity to process 50,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds each year,” he says. Such is demand that “we’re looking to build a new plant in the not too distant future”.
He doesn’t describe himself as a traditional entrepreneur or a green entrepreneur, but rather as being at the forefront of urban mining. “Being part of designing sustainable cities is my target,” he says. Waste streams within urban centres are “low hanging fruit” – not just for sustainability but for economic growth. A circular economy is primarily an efficient way of managing supply chains, says Kay: “It makes economic sense. That’s what organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WEF are focusing on – the huge economic opportunity, aside from the environmental and social benefits. The circular economy, the sharing economy, the green economy: these are all subsets on an ultra-efficient urban industrial supply chain.”
While Bio-bean’s current focus is on “cracking the UK”, the next stage is international, followed by identifying other waste streams. “Coffee is a great one to start with – it’s clean, highly calorific and oily – but you can apply this technology to thousands of other waste streams, and that’s where we see growth as well.”
Being described as a leader seems premature to Kay (“maybe in a few decades when I’ve got a bit of grey hair and a success story”). But if he does inspire others he wants it to bring “rigour and ambition” to sustainability. Unlike peers in technology start-ups that adhere to the Silicon Valley motto of “fail fast, fail often”, Kay has been forged in an industry where failure can mean the end. “In waste management and energy supply, if you mess up in any way then companies will never talk to you again. Contracts can take months, if not years to ... build relationships and build trust, proving you can do it, showing them the trucks, the factory, and the commercial offering.”
It’s this rigour and ambition that makes Kay the youngest ever Guardian Sustainable Business leader of the year. “When I was born in 1990, about 40% of the world lived in cities,” he says. “When I reach 60-70, about three-quarters of the world will live in cities. That will be the most dramatic change certainly in my life and I want to be part of that, to make sure we design those cities efficiently and effectively. That’s what I was interested in at school, that’s what I studied at university, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”'

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