Visit any commercial kitchen, restaurant or grocery store and you’ll be struck by the amount of food scraps headed to the waste bins each day.
Larry LeSueur, a former Microsoft manager, looks at that food waste as opportunity. The co-founder and CEO of WISErg has developed a new “Harvester” device that turns food scraps into fertilizer, along the way making it easier for restaurants, commercial kitchens and grocery stores to track and minimize food waste.
The 4-year-old company just landed $900,000 in fresh cash, adding to $5 million that was raised earlier this year. Backers included strategic partners in the food processing, manufacturing and software industries, though LeSueur declined to disclose names of the new investors.
With seven “Harvesters” now in operation at PCC, Red Apple, Central Markets and Whole Foods stores in Washington state, LeSueur said the 25-person company is picking up momentum. It has contracts for another 20 Harvesters to be installed, with plans to expand nationwide next year. He anticipates the company will more than triple in size next year.
“Q1 will be our big explosion,” says LeSueur, noting that it plans to expand to Portland and San Francisco next year. WISErg also is in discussions with large national grocery chains.
The “Harvesters” produced by WISErg cost upwards of $35,000 — about in line with other food compacting devices. There is also a monthly subscription fee for restaurants and grocery stores to use the service.
“We have a unique business model because part of it is helping groceries and commercial kitchens with these Harvesters to understand why waste is occurring,” said LeSueur. “The second aspect of our business is to recover the nutrients out of that food waste and monetize that as a fertilizer.”
The second part of the company’s business related to fertilizer production is just starting to take off, and LeSueur said some of the new money will be used to support those efforts. The fertilizer being produced by WISErg is of high quality because it is derived from all organic materials, with LeSueur saying that demand is growing among large agricultural operations. The idea is to target the natural fertilizer to specific non-grain crops, from lettuce to potatoes to tomatoes.
“Our technology allows us to salvage and capture the nutrients before they start decomposing,” said LeSueur, adding that “manure-based organic materials” have already degraded because they’ve moved through a living being. Unlike manure-based or fish-based fertilizers, the WISErg fertilizer does not have a foul odor, with LeSueur saying it has a “nice, Earthy smell to it.”
WISErg also does not have the potential negative impacts of chemical-based fertilizers.
At this stage, LeSueur said the company can only process about 3,000 gallons of fertilizer per week at its facilities in Redmond. By end of the first quarter, he said capacity will increase to about 3,000 gallons per day.
LeSueur may strike you as an odd choice for an entrepreneur to get into the food scrap and fertilizer business. At Microsoft he was the general manager of user experience on the Windows Server System, among holding other roles. He then worked at technology consultant Avanade as vice president of technology infrastructure.
LeSueur laughs when asked about the transition, noting that some may view the progression from “digital life to dumpster diving” as a bit odd.
“The focus always was: Here is a problem, and how do we use technology to solve it,” he said. “At the core of what we are doing, it is all about data, it is about data analytics and its about big data and pumping as much of this stuff into the cloud to understand how we advise our customers.”
Here’s a quick overview of the Harvester.