FloWaste: Using computer vision to see an end to food waste

5 Apr 2021

Image: Rian Mc Donnell

Irishman Rian Mc Donnell has brought his food tech start-up to Chicago to help his chances of tackling the global issue of food waste.

Of the all the food available to consumers in 2019, 17pc was wasted. That amounts to 931m tonnes of food, according to UN research. Not only is this simply wasteful, it’s harmful to the environment amid an escalating climate crisis. Around 8pc to 10pc of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. For retailers and food service businesses, it’s also costly to produce food only for it to end up in the bin.

In summary, food waste is a business, environmental and ethical issue. And FloWaste might just have a tech solution for it.

“Food analytics is a underserved market. FloWaste wants to be the food analytics company, starting with food waste in the service industry,” said CEO Rian Mc Donnell.

‘By July 2020, I had quit my job to focus 100pc on FloWaste’

Founded in 2020, FloWaste has the potential to solve a multibillion-dollar global problem. The technology uses 3D imaging and machine learning to capture volumetric food data, categorising and quantifying the food detected.

“We attach 3D cameras to kitchen waste bins and gather information as to what items are being wasted, when and how much,” Mc Donnell explained. “This data can then be used to optimise the kitchen going forward, bringing insights to management to reduce waste and unnecessary costs.”

The genesis of the idea came from a user-centred design project Mc Donnell completed at Trinity College Dublin back in 2018. Mc Donnell was a student in the same engineering programme that has produced award-winning start-ups such as WayToB and Akara Robotics. He further developed the project as a business idea as part of Trinity’s LaunchBox accelerator programme as well as the New Frontiers entrepreneur development programme.

Originally from Dundalk, Co Louth, Mc Donnell has been based in the US since graduating from Trinity. He went on to do a master’s in engineering and entrepreneurship at the University of Notre Dame, which is in Indiana and about two hours from Chicago in Illinois. Mc Donnell continued to develop FloWaste at Notre Dame, recruiting two key team members to the early-stage company.

Elise Weimholt, who is from Minnesota and also studied at Notre Dame, learned about FloWaste through a pitch competition last April. “I reached out to Rian, expressing interest in the idea and getting involved. By July 2020, I had quit my job to focus 100pc on FloWaste,” she said.

Weimholt became CTO of FloWaste while computer vision engineer and ex-Googler Dhruv Diddi joined as what Mc Donnell described as the company’s resident “machine learning expert”.

‘Chicago is quickly becoming the food tech capital of the world’

FloWaste’s target clients are cafeterias, quick service and fast-food restaurants that could benefit from a reduction in food waste and costs. Its proprietary image recognition technology can also be used to optimise portion sizing, ingredient combinations and food preparation, all with the ultimate goal of reducing waste. It also has potential applications in food production.

Last month, the company secured pre-seed funding of $270,000 from numerous investors including Plug and Play Ventures, Elevate Ventures, RSLP Ventures, Flywheel Fund, Culvex Investments and individual investor Angie Stocklin.

Mc Donnell said this funding would allow FloWaste to capitalise on current sales momentum, develop the minimum viable product and launch a number of paid pilots later this year. These pilots involve well-known fast food chains, international tech company cafeterias, a large European beef processor and the US Air Force.

The aim is to complete the pilots before autumn 2021, at which point Mc Donnell hopes to raise additional capital for scaling the business in 2022. “The hope is to use these as case studies going forward, sign some letters of intent and contracts for future services, and then raise a seed round of $1m to $1.5m in August or September 2021.”

In terms of aligning the company with international climate goals, Mc Donnell said the mission is to reduce global greenhouse emissions by 1pc. “We believe this is possible,” he said. “About 30pc of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to food or the food supply chain.”

Mc Donnell has been encouraged by the strong support of FloWaste at its early stage and credits some of this to the combination of Irish grit and determination with tech entrepreneurship and food industry expertise. He is, however, determined to continue building the company in his adopted home.

“The mid-west of America is a great place for us to be,” he said. “Chicago is quickly becoming the food tech capital of the world, with huge food distributors and manufacturers based in the mid-west. It is also considerably cheaper than San Francisco and New York!”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.