These First-Year MBAs Are Trying to Solve America’s Food Waste ProblemRicky Ashenfelter
Americans throw out almost a third of their food annually—the equivalent of more than $160 billion—while almost 15 percent of U.S. households struggle to put enough food on the table. Add to this the continuing depletion of our limited natural resources for fuel and fertilizer, and what you have is a business opportunity to redirect landfill-bound waste to people in need and to businesses that can do something productive with it.
My classmate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Emily Malina, and I are trying to do just that with a mobile application and enterprise software platform built on the principles of the sharing economy. Our business venture, Spoiler Alert, is an online marketplace for the real-time exchange of local supply-and-demand information for excess, expiring, and spoiled food.
The food waste problem is ripe for innovation. Here in Massachusetts, a commercial food waste ban will go into effect this summer. And last fall, the former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch, announced the opening of a Boston-based store that will prepare and sell donated, excess food to cost-conscious consumers.
Most solutions that aim to address the food waste issue tend to be local, ad hoc collaborations that do not maximize the potential value of donations, waste diversion, and food repurposing. Our vision for Spoiler Alert has the potential to seamlessly connect every major player in the food-supply chain. Food retailers with large amounts of spoiled food could use Spoiler Alert to reach farmers, composters, and bio-energy producers that can convert that waste into less energy-intensive forms of fertilizer and fuel. This lowers their costs and could even create new revenue streams.
While Spoiler Alert is undergoing product design and development now, we hope to have a prototype available by the fall of 2014 to beta test with partners and potential customers. Our team is competing in the final round of the 2014 MIT Ideas Global Challenge and was recently awarded the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship, an international fellowship program on creative and innovative thinking.
Preserving the environment is deeply important to me. Every summer, my dad and my grandfather took me fly-fishing in remote parts of Canada and Montana. We would spend a week in our waders catching and releasing (and occasionally cooking and eating) trout. The scenery was spectacular, and the fishing was always first-rate, but what I remember most are the conversations we had about the role that business plays in protecting the great outdoors.
My grandfather was an Exxon gas station owner; my father is a retired environmental lawyer. They had their differences of opinion, but for the most part agreed that government regulations—coupled with entrepreneurship and innovation in the private sector—are key to protecting our air and land.
Now that I am here at MIT Sloan, I’m learning frameworks, methods, and techniques that will prepare me for a career in trying to solve energy and environmental problems. I have fully immersed myself in Sloan’s Sustainability, Entrepreneurship & Innovation curriculum, and I serve as the managing director of the MIT Clean Energy Prize, a student-run business-plan competition that distributes more than $300,000 to new ventures focused on addressing our global energy problems. I recently wrapped up a January internship at Cambrian Innovation, an awesome MIT cleantech startup that uses electrically active microbes to process waste water from food and beverage companies into biogas. This summer, I will do my full-time MBA internship in the cleantech industry in San Francisco.
I’m taking advantage of the vast resources available for entrepreneurs on campus. I work with professors at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the Sustainability Initiative for MIT Sloan. I also learn from fellow entrepreneurs and classmates about how ventures are started, where customer pain points exist, and how obstacles are overcome. The opportunity to both learn from successful entrepreneurs (in the case of Spoiler Alert) and foster future ones (in the case of the MIT Clean Energy Prize) is invaluable.