After noticing how much food was going to waste on his college campus, Cal Berkeley student Paran Sonthalia knew he had to do something about it. So he founded DeWaste, a startup that uses machine learning to reduce food waste on college campuses and in restaurants around the nation.
“I’ve always been interested in sustainability, namely food waste. It was something that I've grown up with, just not leaving anything on our plate and always finishing it,” said Sonthalia, a third year Computer Science major who started DeWaste in 2018. “Then I think when we came to Berkeley, just seeing so much food being thrown away in the dining halls, like people going with whole plates of food and throwing it away, was just kind of disheartening.”
Sonthalia knew that his experience at Berkeley was not unique; this issue was prevalent in dining complexes, restaurants and kitchens all around the world. He saw the need for change and decided to take action.
He entered his DeWaste prototype in the Cal Hacks competition, which is a nonprofit organization where students at UC Berkeley can enter their innovative ideas using technology to solve problems. After winning the competition, he put the prize money of $1,000 towards further developing and expanding his products.
Shortly after, Sonthalia and his DeWaste co-founder, Pranshu Bansal, got to work. DeWaste is designed to automatically take photos of which food items are being thrown out most often, so that colleges and restaurants can make adjustments and reduce the amount of waste using the data provided.
“Simply put, we're Google Analytics for food waste," Sonthalia said. "We're gathering data and using that data driven waste analytics to give you actionable things, like based on your waste, this is what you should do to help reduce it."
DeWaste requires no human interaction, and instead, is completely formed from the feedback it picks up. On a college campus, DeWaste can track which particular items are consistently getting thrown away, such as hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Then the kitchen staff will know to switch up their burger recipe, or discontinue them all together, and start serving other baseline items like pizza or sandwiches instead.
When DeWaste was first introduced, the team did not anticipate the immediate success and interest it would spark from college campuses around the United States.
“We decided to reach out to around 70 universities, expecting that maybe three or four of them would get back saying that they'd be interested in the product. But, out of those 70 or so universities, at least 60 to 70 responded, saying that they would be interested in trying it just from a simple cold email, like not knowing any of them,” Sonthalia said. “I think that that's been probably the biggest and most exciting thing for us, just knowing that so many people were willing to try our product from just one random email.”
After COVID hit, rather than let the pandemic halt DeWaste’s progress, Sonthalia and his team used it to their advantage.
“COVID has definitely impacted us quite a bit," Sonthalia said. "Our main model at the time was doing analytics in dining halls to figure out what students were throwing away, and that was pretty much the only business we were in at the time.”
Sonthalia always knew restaurants would be their largest business based on the number of restaurants and excessive waste each one produces when compared to college campuses. With the dining hall contracts already solidified for the return of in-person classes, the DeWaste team shifted their efforts to the restaurant industry.
“So that kind of forced us to make that shift to restaurants a whole lot earlier than we had planned for,” Sonthalia said. “It ended up working out and we were able to build out our restaurant product, which is now ready to start getting tested.
Paran explained his restaurant model using Taco Bell as a prime example: Every day, Taco Bell throws out an overwhelming amount of beans because the shelf life is only about two hours until they go bad. In just a matter of seconds, DeWaste can quickly and easily tell the company which times of day the most beans are getting thrown away, so that Taco Bell can produce less of that item during that time.
Not only does it help reduce food waste, but this product also acts as a sort of insurance for when customer demands suddenly change, as the restaurant industry saw with COVID.
“Suddenly everyone stopped eating out and it was hard for restaurants to pick up on that until maybe two to three weeks later, when they were able to see significant demand changes," Sonthalia said. "But with our system, we'll be able to pick up on such changes much quicker, in maybe two to three days, just based on all the historical data that we've already been collecting. We'll be able to save restaurants thousands of dollars just there itself, and that’s the shift.”
In addition to creating more sustainable practices in the kitchen, DeWaste also has plans that would directly impact those who are struggling with food insecurity and hunger around the world.
“Just hearing horror stories about people in hunger and how they don't even get like, one meal a day, and we're getting two or three and are still throwing away food. That's terrible, and so I think just knowing we could do something about that,” Sonthalia said. “We're hoping to take a portion of our profits and donate to organizations like Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, and places like that once we start having reasonable profits.”
For Sonthalia, DeWaste was more than just an opportunity to start his own business; it was the chance to make a noticeable difference on the economy, environment, and everyone around the world.
“I think the biggest thing to start a business is first, you just have to be very passionate about the problem," Sonthalia said. "If you're not passionate about your problem, you're going to end up going down some route. And when it gets hard, it's going to be hard to stick with it. It’s all about being passionate about the problem, not just the solution that you've come up with, because oftentimes, your solution is going to have to change.”
To learn more about DeWaste’s mission and progress towards eliminating food waste, check out their website and social media channels below!
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