The word “kooky” suggests something that is unconventional and even crazy. The company’s name wasn’t just picked at random, according to CEO and co-founder Torge Barkholtz. We visited him in Zurich West, where kooky has its headquarters in an older building with fashion-able loft offices. “We were looking for a short, catchy name that had nothing to do with recycling or reuse,” says the CEO. “kooky is about a lifestyle.” The idea behind it is anything but crazy. “With our digital recycling system and infrastructure for handling returns, we are transforming the recycling of take-away beverage containers and bringing it to a new level.”
The idea behind kooky is actually very simple: Instead of using a disposable cup, consumers get their take-away beverages in one of kooky’s reusable containers, and when they are finished they return it to one of many publicly accessible return stations. The company empties the stations, cleans the cups, and then delivers them to its partner companies. kooky has created a digital platform showing the locations of the take-away businesses that use kooky cups and the stations where they can be returned. Upon purchasing a drink, customers pay a deposit of CHF 1 and scan the cup’s QR code with their cell phones. When the cup is returned, the deposit is credited digitally. Customers can choose to have the deposit transferred to their bank accounts or to donate that amount to an environmental organization.
It was Max Zott, one of the other two co-founders of kooky, who consulted his colleague Torge Barkholtz on how to make analog recycling systems smarter at the beginning of 2021. The latter was an expert on the recycling economy and electromobility, and had extensive experi-ence as a startup founder. Shortly thereafter, they brought Dmytro Boguslavskyy on board to serve as CTO; along with an experienced team, he handles the technical side of the business.
In contrast to other reuse systems, kooky focuses on the infrastructure. “People will only return the cups if it’s convenient,” Torge Barkholtz explains. The containers for returns need to be readily accessible and located in places where there is a lot of foot traffic, such as train stations and public squares. At present, kooky cups can be found at more than 220 businesses and returned at 190 locations throughout Switzerland.
Before long, kooky was able to win over investors and large companies, including SBB, Valora, and Coop. In April 2022, the startup also secured EUR 6 million in funding, allowing it to expand to Germany and Austria. Sites are currently being established in Munich and Vienna, and kooky is recruiting both new talent and experienced personnel. In Switzerland, new partners are being added on a regular basis – Torge Barkholtz and his business partners are even holding talks with beverage industry giants like Starbucks. In the future, customers should be able to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks and then deposit the Starbucks-brand cup in one of kooky’s containers, returning it to the system for recycling. “We have consciously chosen an open system so that other providers can participate and take advantage of our logistics,” says CEO Barkholtz, “The goal is to avoid siloed solutions.” This means that partner companies are still able to provide their own products, but all of the logistics – returns, collection, and cleaning – is handled by kooky.
According to Torge Barkholtz, the response to kooky on the part of the food and beverage industry, investors, and customers has been so positive because the company’s approach is in tune with the times. Disposable dishes and enormous piles of trash are no longer acceptable in the modern world. “Many companies, but also cities, universities, and other institutions, recognize that they need to do something about these issues, but this requires a holistic solution and the corresponding infrastructure.”
Environmental considerations also played a central role in the development of kooky’s cups. The cups are made in Germany from pollutant-free polypropylene (PP) and can be reused up to 500 times. “The kooky cup’s environmental footprint is considerably better than that of single-use cups,” Torge Barkholtz points out. When they reach the end of their useful life, the cups are granulated and the material is returned to the materials loop. To keep carbon emissions low, kooky uses cargo bicycles to collect and deliver the cups. kooky has consciously chosen an approach that differs from that of other providers.” “We’re not a new-cup supplier; instead, we offer a simple, recyclable alternative to existing disposables,” Barkholtz explains. “As long as disposables exist, reusables will always have a hard time.” He points out that kooky is meant for everyone, from bankers to students to commuters: “It may sound corny, but every one of us can help make the world a better place.” kooky is making that possible, he says, without requiring consumers to give up their lifestyle involving take-away beverages.
One reason for kooky’s success is that the company has focused from the very beginning on its core area of competence, outsourcing other business areas such as HR and accounting. As Torge Barkholtz explains, “I learned from starting other businesses in the past how important it is to focus on team building early on.” With a total of 30 employees in seven locations – Zurich, Bern, Basel, St. Gallen, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna – the company is still relatively small. In today’s challenging market environment, however, CEO Barkholtz sees its size as an advantage. A small company like kooky can respond quickly to change. The labor shortage in the food and beverage sector is one example: kooky responded by introducing a self-service machine that gives customers access to kooky cups whenever they choose.
“The kooky team is notable for the strength of its implementation,” Torge Barkholtz points out. “This has allowed us to achieve a great deal in a short period of time.” What’s more, he and his colleagues have “countless other ideas” about how kooky’s journey can continue. Curiosity about new solutions is what drives the company, he says – true to the motto “stay hungry, stay foolish, stay kooky,” he adds with a grin.
Number of employees: 30
Founded in: 2021
Scope of activities: kooky offers a digital recycling system for take-away beverages, featuring the company’s own infrastructure for handling returns