Startup Stories: How Winnow tackles the waste tsunami with foodtech innovation
How much food do you waste? Now take that, multiply it and think how much food is thrown out in commercial kitchens every day. Kitchens waste up to 20% of the food they purchased. Even though food waste is a huge problem, foodtech companies address this issue only slowly. One such company is Winnow. Established in 2013 and based in London, Winnow is on a mission to help the hospitality industry tackle avoidable food waste by connecting the kitchen. Making use of the Internet of Things, connected devices and a cloud software Winnow aims at empowering chefs to run a more efficient operation.
Thank you for sharing some insights about Winnow. In a nutshell: what do you do at Winnow and what problem do you solve?
Winnow is a tech company making cutting edge technology to help chefs measure, monitor and dramatically reduce food waste. Kitchens using Winnow know exactly what they’re putting in their bins. The kitchen team use a touch screen tablet to identify what they’re throwing away. An electronic scale records the weight and sends a message to the user, giving the cost of the food they’ve put in the bin.
The meter is connected to cloud software which records and analyses the day’s waste. This gives chefs the information necessary to drive improvements in their production processes to cut food waste in half, saving money and reducing their environmental footprint at the same time.
The data helps chefs make better decisions, engage staff and give them a clear focus by setting targets. Simple and intuitive, the Winnow System has been designed specifically for busy kitchens.
How did you come up with the specific idea for the Winnow System? Is there a story behind it?
While at McKinsey, I co-authored a significant research paper on resource productivity. I was struck by the food waste statistics when I first learned about them: one-third of all food is wasted from farm to fork and if food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the USA and China. I started Winnow as I saw a huge opportunity in solving the problem of food waste and I believe that technology can help us change the way we make food.
In what way can internet of things tools in the kitchen be the solution to food waste?
There are three components to Winnow: firstly there’s a digital scale. This scale is connected via Bluetooth to a tablet, which is connected to the cloud and sits on the kitchen wall.
For example, a chef will throw food in the bin, the scale will recognize this by a change in weight and then the tablet becomes active. The chef then identifies what has been thrown into the bin and that data is then sent and aggregated to create a report that highlights which areas of their operations have the highest levels of waste and how much it is costing them. What that report allows operators to do is see how much food waste is costing them and to draw attention to what they can do to change their operation and cuts food waste by over 50%.
What do you expect to be the biggest challenge for you in the upcoming months?
We see our biggest challenge being keeping up with the international demand we have for our product.
We’ve been growing very quickly and bringing in a number of large contracts over the past 12 months. We project that to continue as the evidence on what we can deliver becomes even clearer to the market.
This means we have to focus intensely on hiring the right people, making sure we maintain focus on what we do well, and continuing to improve our operations to make sure we can effectively scale our organisation to match our clients’ needs.
You have offices in London and Singapore. How important is international cooperation for you and your goal to tackle food waste?
Currently, we have offices in London, Singapore, Dubai and Shanghai. Food waste is one of the defining problems of our generation. If we are serious about solving it, we must look to technology and innovation to help us. In a world where almost a billion people go hungry every day, the fact that we waste food on such a colossal scale is obscene.
I believe that Winnow has application in virtually every kitchen globally. We have proved that food waste can not only be reduced but can be reduced profitably. Winnow is a real win-win for business and the environment and we are expanding internationally as the hospitality sees real value in tackling food waste.
What are your plans for the future? What milestones do you want to reach next?
In a relatively short period of time, we have demonstrated that digital tools can help chefs drive significant change within kitchens that benefits both business and planet. We believe that the Winnow system can help solve the problem of food waste on a global scale.
We are planning to expand into new markets globally while continuing to grow in existing markets. Ultimately we are working towards a future where every kitchen worldwide uses data to manage waste, in the same way they do now with sales or inventory management.
What makes the area of foodtech and IoT devices for the food industry attractive to you personally?
Food is such a complex topic – touching operations, culture, nutrition, and the environment all in very deep ways. I personally believe there is huge scope for IoT to drive impact into the food sector. Downstream in hospitality, it is still a very labour intensive industry with lots of opportunity for efficiency both within an operation’s own four walls but also across the industry.
How do you perceive the current situation of the “foodtech-sector”? Are we on the right track or do you see certain obstacles ahead?
We’re still very early days in terms of foodtech.
We are starting to move beyond delivery and meal-kit businesses to a much broader set of technologies that can disrupt the food industry. What we need to do is see a few additional companies reach sufficient scale to attract further investment. There’s a lot of innovation going on in food but it simply isn’t getting the same level of VC interest as financial technology as an example.
What do you think are the most relevant technologies to disrupt foodtech in the future?
I’m excited to see what robotics and AI can do for the industry.
There is a lot of labour that goes into making our food system work. Historically, there’s been a low level of automation because it’s messy and complex. With the latest innovations in deep learning, I think we’re getting closer to being able to handle this complexity.
To be clear, I don’t think this will mean that robots will be running our kitchens anytime soon. That said, I think there will be a lot of technology brought into to augment the effectiveness of people in the food industry and drive up productivity in the industry.
How do you judge the overall career opportunities in foodtech?
Now is a great time to get involved. The industry is young and therefore there’s a lot of scope to have an impact and to define how things should be done.
There are also a broad set of skills needed. Food delivery companies, for example, have a huge need for people with manufacturing and logistics expertise. Software businesses will need more product, software development, and business development capability.
That said, the one thing that is likely to be different about foodtech than, for example, social media, is that change will take time. There are structural reasons such as capital requirements or simply the time to change habits in food production that keep innovation centred in the physical world as opposed to just the digital world.
What advice would you give graduates who want to join this industry or a foodtech-startup?
I would encourage both graduates and entrepreneurs who care about food to find a spot in the supply chain that they are passionate about and build something to help solve the food waste issue. There are tons of opportunities for new businesses to spring up along the food waste system. It takes investment and time but the potential economic, environmental and social benefits are huge.
Which three qualities should someone have that wants to pursue a “foodtech-career”?
- Food enthusiast
Marc, thank you very much for this interview!
About the interviewee
Marc Zornes started his career at a large wholesale grocers. Food and sustainability have been his passion ever since.
Before Winnow he co-authored the Global Institute report Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Materials, Food, and Water Needs whilst working as a consultant at McKinsey.
He started Winnow because he saw a massive opportunity in solving the problem of food waste. He believes that food is too valuable to waste, and that technology can help us change the way we make food.
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