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Hunter Lindsay, cofounder, Prism
“Our hope is to tackle food waste pre-consumption, saving restaurants money and decreasing food waste and its associated carbon impact.” Hunter Lindsay, cofounder, Prism

Utah-based startup Prism helps restaurants tackle food waste with novel storage tech

July 3, 2024

From cold plasma and cold storage to edible coatings, there are multiple ways to extend the shelf-life of produce moving in bulk through the supply chain, but precious few options once it arrives at the back door of a restaurant, say the founders of Utah-based startup Prism.

“That’s where the innovation tends to stop,” say Hunter Lindsay and Jacob Zundel at Prism, one of six grantees to receive funding through the new ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund, an initiative designed to tackle food waste in restaurants.

While we tend to think of the food left on diners’ plates as the principal source of waste from restaurants, Prism—which emerged from a business accelerator at Brigham Young University—targets food that spoils before chefs have used it.

While this can be minimized through better inventory management, restaurants always throw some unused produce away because they cannot predict with laser accuracy what customers will order on any given day, says Lindsay. “They need to maintain some positive inventory [so they can offer every dish on the menu].”

After surveying a couple of hundred restaurants in Utah, Linday and Zundel found that many were tackling the problem with high-frequency shipments from suppliers, a costly and carbon intensive way to ensure they always have what they need.

According to Lindsay: “We would talk to them about food waste and they would say, ‘Oh, it’s not that much of a problem,’ until we realized their solution was to reach out to US Foods or Sysco and get deliveries every day or every other day. If we could enable them to decrease shipments to a weekly or bi-weekly basis, we could save them money and reduce carbon emissions.”

“Our hope is to tackle food waste pre-consumption, saving restaurants money and decreasing food waste and its associated carbon impact.” Hunter Lindsay, cofounder, Prism

Prism controlled atmosphere bin
Image credit: Prism

2-3x extension in shelf-life

Prism’s patent-pending solution is a controlled atmosphere container that can be stored in restaurants’ walk-in fridges, enabling restaurateurs to extend the shelf-life of produce, reduce waste and potentially reduce the number of fresh food deliveries per week.

Says Lindsay: “The technology itself we can’t go into in detail yet as we’ve just filed a provisional patent and then we are filing for a utility patent, but we’ve created a device that changes various atmospheric conditions to essentially put produce to sleep. We’ve miniaturized industrial technology to put inside of bins that enable fruits and vegetables to last 2-3 times as long—and upwards of 8 times as long in some cases.”

Unlike Seattle-based startup Ripelocker, which creates a near-vacuum in large drums designed to move produce in bulk through the supply chain, Prism’s containers “are at one atmospheric pressure, but we change out the different gases in the same way that a warehouse does on a large scale,” he claims.

“It’s not practical for restaurants to have to hook up CO2 and nitrogen and remove oxygen like they do in an industrial environment, so we developed a way to pull all of the different atmospheric conditions from the air. On board each device is the technology to separate out these different gases and put them in the appropriate quantities within the small scale [container].

“Our technology is in the white piece you see underneath the container… that’s where all the magic happens. Once you put the produce in and seal the lid, it’s constantly monitoring the atmosphere within and then it’s going to optimize it for each different type of produce.

“When you put the produce in you can indicate on our app what type of produce you have in the bin, and adjust the settings remotely over wi-fi, or if you don’t want to use the app, you can use a dial on the container itself that we have separated out into five different categories of fruits and vegetables, so you pick the most suitable one for the produce you have in the bin.”

Prism also has technology that “can eliminate ethylene [a substance naturally produced by plants that triggers ripening] and other biomolecules from the air without the need of replacement parts [eg. without needing ethylene scrubbers such as 1-MCP, activated charcoal etc],” claims Lindsay. “The air runs through a chamber which uses a specific wavelength of light to degrade ethylene.”

He adds: “We have gas filtration technology and the light-based ethylene degradation technology. In addition to these two technologies, we also have a humidification system and set of sensors to measure all of these different factors. Together, all these components make up Prism.”

“Restaurants are a source of significant food waste, with slim margins, labor constraints, and other challenges making food waste reduction cost-prohibitive, inconvenient, and inaccessible for most restaurants. Our goal with this open call of the Catalytic Grant Fund is to help restaurants gain access to solutions that enable them to be more sustainable and climate-friendly, while still providing a unique dining experience.” Angel Veza, senior manager, capital, innovation, and engagement, ReFED

Hunter Lindsay, cofounder, Prism
“Our hope is to tackle food waste pre-consumption, saving restaurants money and decreasing food waste and its associated carbon impact.” Hunter Lindsay, cofounder, Prism

The business model

As for the business model, Prism is exploring models whereby restaurants can buy or lease the bins, says Lindsay: “We’re testing this right now with restaurants but the retail price would be $700-800 per bin. We’re still running tests on their lifespan, but we don’t want customers to have to do maintenance, so once they buy them, they will last.

“Our models project that if a small to medium sized restaurant implements this system with five bins, they will make back or save $2,500 within a year through reduced frequency of shipments and reduced food waste.”

As for feedback from restaurateurs Prism has been speaking to, says Lindsay, it’s been pretty positive, as it’s a “market segment that hasn’t been tapped,” he claims. “There are lots of solutions for industrial-scale applications from sprays to controlled atmosphere, but really nothing that specifically targets restaurants and potentially end consumers like this.”

To date, Prism has been funded through various grants but is now looking at raising money to help commercialize the technology, says Lindsay, who studied molecular biology and graduated in December 2023, while Zundel, who studied entrepreneurial management, graduated in April 2024.

“We’ve talked to a couple of different manufacturing partners, but we believe we should be able to set up manufacturing fairly quickly now that we’ve tested and validated the system on a small scale. We’ve been running trials with prototypes for six to eight months with all different types of produce.”

The latest cohort of grantees to receive funding through the ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund include:

  • Afterlife Ag: Offering a circular solution enabling restaurants to divert food waste from landfills and buy mushrooms grown from the otherwise wasted food.
  • Center for EcoTechnology (CET): Offering technical assistance to food businesses on food waste reduction, recovery, and recycling.
  • ConnectedFresh Company: Using sensors and AI to help restaurants with inventory management and waste tracking.
  • Food Rescue US: Making food donation easier for restaurants via an app.
  • Green Dining Alliance: Helping restaurants implement and track food waste reduction strategies.
  • Prism: Developing a storage system designed for restaurants that uses controlled atmosphere to extend the lifespan of fresh produce.

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