Miniwiz Founder Arthur Huang
From Trash to Treasures
Miniwiz Sustainable Energy Development Ltd. is turning waste into stylish, environmentally friendly products. Founder Arthur Huang, mastermind of the much-heralded EcoARK, has an ambitious goal to "let trash be reborn."
From Trash to TreasuresBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 493 )
Lying around on the table in the Miniwiz conference room are a long piece of black wood plastic composite, a roll of navy blue bar code plastic film, and a bottle of beige rice husks.
"We often receive a lot of strange materials," notes Huang as he unconsciously picks up the bar code film, sent over from a chemical materials maker in France, and keeps unrolling and rolling it up again.
These "strange" materials have one thing in common: They are all waste products, or what the man in the street would simply call trash.
The 34-year-old Huang founded Miniwiz in 2006 with a mission: The company uses materials that others discard – trash – to create innovative, sustainable, eco technology products and building solutions. Over the past seven years, Miniwiz generated the greatest buzz with the EcoARK, a 28m-high zero carbon emission pavilion for the 2010 Taipei Flora Expo built out of 1.5 million recycled plastic beverage bottles, also known as polli-bricks.
The spectacular boat-shaped structure was even featured as the world's greenest pavilion in National Geographic's Megastructures documentary series. Broadcast in 168 countries around the globe, it spread the story of Huang and his eco-conscious Miniwiz team. With its polli-bricks Miniwiz made it among the finalists of the Asian Innovation Awards 2011, organized by The Wall Street Journal Asia in partnership with financial services group Credit Suisse.
However, Huang and his team make the deepest impression not for their R&D and design prowess, but because they use cutting-edge vision and ambition for a positive take on usually negatively perceived waste.
Last month Huang made a trip to New York. He had been selected as one of 28 New York City Venture Fellows, an international mentorship and networking program sponsored by the city government. The year-long program was initiated by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010.
At the time Bloomberg felt that New York was no longer attractive for start-ups and that California's Silicon Valley had proven to be more entrepreneurial. Therefore, he decided to select between 20 and 30 rising star entrepreneurs from New York and around the world each year for the program with a focus on future-oriented industries with new ideas. The mayor expects the young entrepreneurs to give the city some valuable suggestions and hopes that they are willing to take their ventures to New York for further development.
"New York City and Cornell University are even cooperating to establish an engineering school for low carbon materials. New York has the ambition to become the low-carbon technology city of the future," enthuses Huang.
Witnessing the low-carbon ambition of this trend-setting metropolis, Huang felt reassured that he had made the right choice, that he was pioneering the road to the future.
What Makes a Visionary Industrialist
"The vast majority of the Asian Innovation Award finalists this year were online ventures or service sector businesses. We and one Indian company were the only two manufacturers," notes Huang with barely concealed pride.
Huang enjoys the role of "industrialist," because he loves research and development. In the process of engineering low-carbon materials made from recycled waste, he insists on two principles: Each product must be "100% made from trash" and must not include any "virgins," meaning materials that have not been previously used, consumed or processed.
The lion's share of Miniwiz products is based on waste plastic materials. R&D focuses on strengthening material structure through physical processes such as folding or reshaping, or by using bio-fiber derived from rice husk agro waste to reinforce recycled plastic and to improve its surface texture.
When silica extracted from barley or rice husk is mixed with cement, material strength can be enhanced, which allows savings on concrete cost in construction projects. In comparison to conventional glass curtain walls, the translucent polli-bricks require just one fourth the construction costs and also weigh only one fifth of a glass façade. As a result CO2 emissions caused during production and transportation can be greatly reduced.
The company's fifty employees cover many different areas of expertise that one is unlikely to find in a traditional architectural firm. On top of architects the team includes chemical, structural and mechanical engineers, product and project managers, marketing experts and designers. The team's average age is a tender 31.
Miniwiz has integrated the entire industry chain. "It's very hard to put together such a team, but we have this strength because we have an integrated technology platform," Huang explains.
Currently, the Miniwiz portfolio includes low-carbon products and eco-friendly structures such as large exhibition pavilions in Southeast Asia, China and Europe as well as a waste recycling facility for Super Dragon Technology Co. Ltd. (SDTI) in northern Taiwan.
In the past a client planning a construction project would have had to look separately for an architect, a structural engineer and a general contractor. But now a client who is willing to use low-carbon materials in a construction project can directly hire Miniwiz as an all-in-one partner. Integration can not only lower costs, but also realize environmental values too.
"Huang has a strong integrative ability. He has very new ideas and is able to get things done.
He is well aware that if environmental technology is not able to create economic value, it won't be sustainable," notes SDTI president Ken Wu.
Wu left a 23,000-square meter plot of land in Taoyuan County unused for two years, because he was searching for a suitable partner to build a truly "green building." Eventually, only Huang's design was able to meet the many requirements that Wu had stipulated for the project. "I could sense his passion for inspiring more people to practically achieve environmental protection," recalls Wu.
Trash Can Be Very Sexy
Yet while feeling passionate about recycling and reusing waste, Huang also acted strategically.
For most people the energy-saving, esthetically beautiful EcoARK – translucent during the day, brightly illuminated at night – is the most striking example of polli-brick applications.
But Huang believes that construction materials are too far removed from ordinary people's lives. He wants low-carbon products made from recycled waste to be used in every home, to be seen everywhere. And he wants to prove that such eco-friendly products can be trendy, stylish and beautiful.
The Re-case, a protective case for Apple's iPhone 4S, is made from recycled polypropylene that has been upcycled with reprocessed rice husks from rice farms in Taidong County on Taiwan's east coast.
"Why do we make a handset case for the iPhone and not for other handset brands? It's because the iPhone is the epitome of trendiness. We want everyone to get the message that products made from waste can also be very sexy," explains Huang.
The Re-case and the Re-wine, a protective wine carrier case that can be turned into a lamp shade or used as a building block, are prominently on display at the Eslite bookstores in their full color range. Huang is very much aware that Miniwiz B2B construction materials need to make money, whereas the design of B2C consumer products serves to create publicity for the company.
Taking Discard Design to the Extreme
Huang wants to take designing with recycled materials to the extreme and reach the maximum possible number of customers by including products for all basic needs in life – food, clothing, shelter and transportation.
Early last year Huang convinced local beverage maker Taisun Enterprise Co. to release Polli Tea, an organic herbal tea drink in a reusable polli-brick shaped bottle.
Miniwiz financial director Adam Cheng compares Huang to a missionary who zealously preaches the gospel. He is able to talk about his company's calling round the clock, trying to convert others to his green beliefs.
"You know, even in the nightclub he still talks about recycling the whole time!" Cheng reveals with a laugh.
Cheng, who holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, once worked for Morgan Stanley's Merger, Acquisition, and Restructuring Division in Hong Kong. "We created new businesses. We also created new competition," he recalls.
Miniwiz design and R&D director Jarvis Liu is two years younger than his boss. They met when Liu attended a course Huang was teaching at the Department of Architecture at Tunghai University. Liu was hired for the important R&D position as soon as he graduated.
"Ordinary people tend to say No to anything they aren't familiar with, but he will always say I want to give it a try," Liu observes. Huang always encourages his team to have the courage to try new things: "We're young. We don't necessarily need to be 100 percent on top of everything to do it."
"The younger you are, the stronger the fire burning inside you. I only hope that this fire keeps burning," remarks Huang. Born in Taiwan, Huang went to the United States at the age of 11. His parents most hoped for him to become a university professor.
"Actually, I don't understand Chinese parents. From childhood on, they raise their children to become skilled in all 18 martial arts weapons. But once you've grown up, they tell you, it's fine if you remain at Shaolin Temple and teach Taichi," says the naturally rebellious Huang, scoffing at the parental expectation to stay put in a stable job and play it safe. Huang is keen on taking risks and tackling the challenges of an entrepreneurial life. "If your martial skills are good, you need to get out there and fight. If young people don't give it a try, what else should they do?"
As this young entrepreneur navigates the vicissitudes of the environmental business world, he not only needs to squarely face challenges, but also wants to change the rules of the game.
"I hope that when I'm sixty, the good inside of me will outweigh the evil. In the business world there are too many who are more evil than good!"
The world is full of evil. Will Huang still remember his statement 25 years from now?
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz