Startups are taking a diversity of approaches to tackle the issue of food waste. Phood is using hardware and software to measure and address waste in restaurant kitchens, while Clean Crop is targeting post-harvest wastage. Ambrosia turned leftovers into a household cleaning product while Full Harvest connects food producers with buyers to sell what would otherwise go to waste.
New York-based Re-Nuble is adopting yet another strategy: turning food waste into a way to grow more food. The company’s technology ‘upcycles’ organic compounds from unrecoverable vegetable food waste, generating water-soluble, organic, hydroponic nutrients for soilless farms.
“We haven’t seen anyone applying this to indoor or controlled environment ag,” Tinia Pina, Re-Nuble founder and CEO, told AFN.
Pina’s inspiration for the business came from her stint working as a teacher in 2012, when she noticed a serious lack of healthy food options for her students. In her view, this affected their productivity – which had downstream implications for their future success. She saw an opportunity to wrap her interest in tamping down food waste into the venture, too.
The fundraising process involved some education, Pina explained. Investors at first considered Re-Nuble’s need for a constant supply of food waste as a risk – but the former teacher taught them that there’s certainly no shortage.
“The other thing we had to really educate investors on was how food waste is handled differently region to region,” she said. “Agricultural economies are going to have different regulations. Here in New York, by 2022 a lot of the industrial and commercial food scraps or food waste generators have to divert to an organic recycler within 20 miles.”
Pina said she met with prospective investors all over the US, but ended up having most success raising from investors on the East Coast.
“[That’s] because I think the sophistication of seeing the potential with agtech, especially in the NYC metropolitan area, helped us. And, to be quite honest, I think the diversity of seeing a woman of color in agriculture. That is an anomaly in some states based on what I have experienced.”
The new funds will be used for typical seed-stage tasks like hiring, R&D, manufacturing, and general acceleration. Pina estimates the product market pipeline is worth at least $2 million.
Thanks to a lot of upfront diligence, Re-Nuble is confident that it has reached product market fit and that securing customers won’t be too much of a challenge. The startup spent seven years studying different food waste characterizations and their biochemical reactions when applied under different environmental controls for a group of specialty crop varietals.
“We’ve been really drilling down and making sure the product works consistently in each type of farm, which is very different,” Pina said. “Some use deep water culture systems, some vertical farming systems are using tray racking systems and ebb and flow. Others are nutrient film techniques. We really wanted to spend the time to make sure that it is consistent in all farm types.”
In addition to its core nutrients product, Re-Nuble has also developed what it calls its ‘On-Site Food Waste Recovery System.’ This captures residual product waste — such as plant matter like vines, leaf cuttings, and perishable produce — as well as a farm’s wastewater for conversion into sterilized biostimulants and potable water. These byproducts are then reused for reduced water and agricultural input consumption.
The startup has faced some serious Covid-related challenges, according to Pina. It had a $500,000 loan rescinded that caused the team to completely redesign its manufacturing process, while also trying to work with manufacturing equipment under a cash-strapped budget.
“We’ve overcome that and we are now on pace to continue working with the farms that we’ve been doing case studies with, which we will release Q1 of next year,” she said. “That will definitely lead to growth and allow us to accelerate more farms getting access to our product.”