Every year, tens of billions of pounds of perfectly edible food are thrown out by restaurants, groceries, catering companies, and delis.
In Chicago, two computer science Ph.D.s—Rajesh Karmani and Caleb Phillips—are trying to bring that number down to zero, with a little bit of logistics and a lot of code. "What keeps me up at night is the fact that there’s still food in the dumpsters," says Phillips.
Their company—Zero Percent—started out simply, somewhere between Karmani’s home and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was a grad student. "I started it to solve a problem I saw at Einstein Bagels," he says.
The problem was that new bagels are baked fresh every day, and the old bagels are tossed. In repeated coffee and bagel stops, Karmani learned that the Einstein franchise owner, Marc, had looked in vain for a local nonprofit that would reliably arrive in time to save his day-olds from the dumpster. "He was hardly getting one or two pick-ups a week," says Karmani.
Karmani’s solution was to build a dead-simple app. Marc could enter what he had to give and when it was available for pick-up, and it would send what Karmani calls a "Mission Impossible"-style text to a few local charities: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick up bagels between 5 and 7 p.m."
His original simple idea got licensed by a major hunger relief nonprofit that Karmani declined to identify, but it evolved into something more complicated in Chicago, where he joined a startup accelerator program called Impact Engine. Under the bright lights of the co-working space that houses them, Karmani’s CTO Caleb Phillips showed me a map of Chicago splattered with red dots to represent donors and green dots to represent recipients. After a couple months in Chicago, they have 16 donors and around 20 charities, with total food pick-ups approaching 1,000 pounds a day. (Up, Phillips says, from 1,000 pounds a week just a few weeks ago.)
Instead of having donors mass-text the charities, and hoping the supply neatly fits the demand, they run all the requests through their system to figure out the optimal distribution of donations and then do the deliveries themselves, with their software plotting the smartest route to do a day’s deliveries with a single vehicle. "Products, quantities, pace, time. There are so many variables," says Karmani. "It’s more complicated. But that’s the fun part," says Phillips.
Their business model is a work-in-progress. At the moment, it's based primarily on taking a cut from the tax deductions earned by the donors (a model they note has been used for 20-years by the less tech-driven Food Donation Connection), though to pay for their driver they’ve also been charging delivery fees for the charities.
After presenting at their accelerator’s demo day, they are working out commitments from interested investors. Their first steps will include hiring a full-time driver and buying their own car (so far, they’ve been relying on ZipCar), and hiring an engineer to improve the smart-route interface for that driver.
It’s a far cry from Phillips first food-rescue startup in Boulder, Colorado, which relied on hundreds of volunteers on bicycles. "I feel like this is the model for big cities; that’s the model for small cities," says Phillips. "But we’ll find out."