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How Canberra, with its short commute times and university and government connections, is helping Goterra thrive.
Bugs aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but they’re the heart of Olympia Yarger’s innovative waste management service operating in Canberra.
As founder of Goterra, Olympia has led the development of proprietary technology that enables mobile modular waste systems — with hungry bugs inside — to take care of food waste onsite at events or restaurants. People throw their food waste into a bin as normal, which starts the process that will end with nutrient-rich animal feed.
Olympia says the ease of getting around in Canberra cuts transport costs, which can often chip away at the environmental and sustainability benefits of food waste management.
“In Canberra, you don’t have to drive very far to get anywhere. Everything is 20 minutes from everything else, so we can get food waste managed where it’s produced. Canberra makes that possible.”
Goterra’s tech development journey started with an Innovation Connect (ICON) grant from the ACT Government. Olympia’s local connections were also a big part of getting Goterra up and running.
“I am truly Canberra born, bred and backed,” says Olympia.
“We worked on the prototyping with Canberra company, Rollercoaster Digital, who were instrumental in us securing funding. And local tradespeople were an enormous help, like the team down at the air compressor store, or the local welding shop doing our fabricating,” says Olympia.
With that local support, Goterra has pioneered a whole new approach to food waste. Goterra processes food waste onsite or close to a site. Their systems have been used at Canberra events like Floriade and the Night Noodle Markets.
“Everything is self-contained within the units — the proprietary robotics inside monitor the environment, and lots of very happy and healthy insects consume 5 times their body weight every day in waste,” Olympia says.
“From there, the insects become part of livestock feed, turning the manure into fertiliser. We’ve closed the loop on food waste.”
The Robotics Department at University of Canberra (UC) played a critical role in developing early prototypes — a connection Gotera maintains through an ongoing partnership with graduate interns. Olympia says the support from postgraduate students from UC has been key to Goterra’s success.
“We have graduate interns every year from UC, and I can’t speak highly enough of them. The graduates coming out of UC are more work-ready than any other university we’ve worked with — they’ve been taught to push and enquire, and really leverage their skills.”
Most interns come from the forensics or sustainability departments and are ready to adapt to startups creating structure and governance on the fly.
“It’s been an absolute privilege to have those graduates lend their inquiring minds and their passion to our work — those skills on our doorstep are super valuable. We can provide opportunities for students who don’t want to travel away from Canberra to get experience,” explains Olympia.
“You can have the first pick of some incredible human beings, because you’re here where they study.”
Olympia says the cost of living and affordability of commercial resources are the other elements making an obvious case for Canberra as a business centre.
“It’s a capital city without the capital city costs. The warehouse space that I can rent in Canberra — if I was in Sydney, I’d be living in my maggot warehouse,” she laughs.
“But we’re also on the doorstep of policy and government, so we’ve had the opportunity to engage with stakeholders directly. You can actually engage with stakeholders legitimately and make them part of your world — it’s a massive benefit that policy and decision makers can come and do a site visit. They get eyes on what you’re doing, so you’re front and centre when opportunities arise.”
Canberra has come into its own as the city that’s accessible from anywhere.
“You’re 1 hour from Melbourne or Sydney, and 3 hours or less from any major regional centre. There is not a single city in Australia that’s more strategically located or better placed to access markets than Canberra.