Raphaël Masvigner of Circul’R : “Today, we have all the solutions for setting up a virtuous economy that respects people and the environment”


Two years ago, Raphaël Masvigner and Jules Coignard set off on a tour of the circular economy world, during which they met with 150 start-ups in twenty countries. We spoke with Raphaël about their organization, Circul’R, and their ideas for introducing the circular economy into large companies.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career? 

I’m one of the co-founders of Circul’R; I’m from the Paris region, and I studied in Paris, England and Brazil. I got the idea to do a world tour from a class I was taking at Sciences Po on entrepreneurship.  Social entrepreneurs came to present their work to the class, and I found it all fascinating. After my studies, I joined Airbus, first in Brazil and then Mexico, where I met Jules. We began discussing the project: my “VIE” (International Volunteer program) was coming to an end, and Jules also wanted to embark on a start-up project.

What gave you the idea of Circul’R?

One of the issues that really fired us up was marine waste, because both of us love the sea. So we got the idea of doing a tour around the world to learn about solutions that can help us solve ocean pollution.  Every morning, we got up earlier than usual, and, before setting off for Airbus, we would interview experts on the subject.  Pretty soon, François Galgani, the marine waste expert at Ifremer (French research institute for the exploitation of the sea), told us that “80% of the waste in the ocean comes from the land, so the waste problem needs to be tackled closer to the source.” One thing led to another, and we came across the idea of circular economy. This is the ideal solution, because it deals with the problems of both waste and resources. Today we consume a planet and a half each year. But the circular economy creates a virtuous circle, using resources intelligently and enabling us to live in a waste-free world.

In August 2014, we returned to France and spent six months visiting large companies to raise funds. Our goal was to meet entrepreneurs all over the world. The subject was beginning to gain traction in France, the US, and the UK with the Ellen McArthur Foundation, but we didn’t know what was going on in the countries of the South. We wanted to be able to put forward solutions that existed in emerging countries.

What were the precise aims of this world tour of the circular economy?  

We had three things in mind: to pinpoint the most innovative solutions (we met with 150 start-ups), to create links between them so they could exchange best practices (we made 200 links), and to connect start-ups with large groups so that they could co-create circular solutions. For example, we put Patagonia in touch with Tale Me, a Belgian start-up that lends clothing for pregnant women and children. Through this partnership, Patagonia was able to rent children’s clothes and impact the service economy.

How did the big companies react? What was their view on the circular economy?

To begin with, we set aside all our savings and said to ourselves, « We’ll go for this whatever happens », without knowing whether companies would contribute much money. And then, within six months, we raised €100,000 from around twenty partners – both companies (Air France, Suez, Vinci, SNCF, Accor, Patagonia, etc.) and community partners (Ashoka, MakeSense and the Institut de l’Economie Circulaire). Companies showed an interest because they were facing a real economic problem, namely growing legislation generating new waste-related costs. At the same time, the increasing scarcity of resources was adding more and more to their supply costs. When the prices of raw materials go sky-high, having a closed circuit helps to cover oneself against this risk of fluctuation.

So companies are jumping on the circular economy bandwagon?

At the start of our world tour, we were mainly in contact with the CSR and communication departments. Our partners were at the research and discovery phase: financing Circul’R helped them learn more about the subject. Today, we also work with the strategy and innovation departments. We have moved from the analysis phase to the action stage, and the creation of concrete projects.

If you had to pick one project that particularly impressed you during your world tour, what would it be, and why?   

NewLight Technologie: this is a Californian start-up that has developed a technology for transforming greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, into bioplastic. And it’s cheaper than the plastic produced from fossil resources!  Today, we see greenhouse gases as something harmful, but in nature it is a resource, essential to plants for photosynthesis and spiders for spinning webs.

 A project that stood out in a developing country would be EcoBike in Colombia, which provides bikes that convert human energy into electricity.  It’s a good way of bringing electricity to households without a power supply.

EcoBikeproject in Colombia – Circul’R©

EcoBike project in Colombia – Circul’R©

What activities is Circul’R involved in today?

Our world tour was a huge market study that allowed us to see where we could contribute value.  We realized that there are two things to be done for companies: raising awareness and changing mentalities, and activating concrete solutions that show the potential of the circular economy.

We promote awareness-raising firstly by giving talks to companies and presenting the circular economy to employees, and secondly through learning expeditions: we go to the field with a large group to meet start-ups in our networks, so that they can see how the circular economy works, and the extent of its economic and environmental impact.

Activation consists of creating success stories between large companies and circular economy start-ups. In practical terms, we identify a challenge encountered by a company and find a start-up that can provide a solution. After that, we put them in contact and help them develop their partnership. We also have a scouting side: large companies often have subsidiaries abroad, so we go directly to the country to get a picture of the local circular ecosystem. We have contacts with companies in twenty countries, and the idea is to have one relay for each country.

And what are the next stages?

We’re going to launch the first circular economy label, Circul’R Ecosystem. For start-ups in the network, this will create more visibility, potential business and access to investment funds, which are increasingly interested in the circular economy.  In May, we will be labelling the first twenty start-ups, and the idea is that there will be twenty new ones each month. We also want to create the first impact investment fund (a type of financial investment combining profitability with social and environmental impact) dedicated to the circular economy in France.

Our mission is to become the premier network for circular economy start-ups on an international level, enabling them to link up with each other at any time. We have observed something really amazing: today, we have all the solutions needed to set up a virtuous economy that respects people and the environment. There’s no need to reinvent the model – we can achieve sustainable growth very rapidly. So let’s go!