An Ottawa company whose portable device quickly turns food scraps into fertilizer is now applying similar technology to plastic waste in a bid to fend off well-heeled U.S. competitors that include a startup backed by Bill Gates.
Food Cycle Science recently received more than $1.65 million from the Canadian Food Innovation Network – a federally funded organization that helps finance commercial research in Canada’s food sector – to develop a system that will rapidly break down plastics made from natural substances such as vegetable oils and convert them into a nutrient-rich byproduct that can be mixed with garden soil.
The Westboro-based firm is working on the technology with biochemistry researchers at Carleton University. Food Cycle chief executive Bradley Crepeau said early evidence suggests the concept has promise, but it will likely be at least three years before a product is ready to hit store shelves.
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“If we can make it easier than the status quo, adoption will occur naturally,” he said of the push to find a convenient way to recycle bioplastic waste, which typically gets shipped to landfills.
The funding boost comes as the company rides a wave of momentum that saw it release a new version of its flagship FoodCycler product earlier this month.
The device, which is about the size of a couple of large crock pots, grinds up food waste such as fruit and vegetable peelings, meat, bones, pits and shells and converts it into an odourless fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.
The FoodCycler can hold up to five litres of food scraps, using heat, air and agitation to reduce the weight and volume of the contents by up to 90 per cent in a matter of hours – as opposed to the weeks or months it takes a traditional green bin to do the same job.
In Crepeau’s words, the FoodCycler is “like composting, but on fast forward.”
With cities across the world, including Ottawa, grappling with the thorny issue of how to reduce garbage output and extend the life of landfills, Crepeau believes his company’s “table-to-farm” tech can play a major role in municipal waste reduction efforts.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food is one of the biggest contributors to landfills, constituting more than 20 per cent of all household waste in that country. Crepeau said as more and more garbage piles up in dumps across the continent, the FoodCycler is becoming a must-have item for a growing number of municipalities that are buying the device in bulk and distributing it to households as an alternative to green bins.
Today, nearly 90 Canadian cities and towns – including Carleton Place, Smiths Falls and Nelson, B.C. – rely on the FoodCycler to compost food waste. Municipal contracts now make up a quarter of the company’s sales.
“When I started this business 11 years ago, nobody talked about food waste,” Crepeau, a 2023 OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient, said in a recent interview. “When I told them I had this device, they’d look at me a little funny. Now, people are talking to me about food waste before I even tell them what I do.”
Most of Food Cycle’s revenues still come from direct-to-consumer sales.
Food appliance giant Vita-Mix Corp. has the exclusive North American rights to sell the FoodCycler, which retails for about $820 in Canada. Meanwhile, Crepeau says sales are growing rapidly in overseas markets such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which now account for 35 per cent of the firm’s sales.
It all adds up to big business for Food Cycle, which placed fifth on OBJ’s list of fastest-growing companies earlier this year with three-year revenue growth of 426 per cent. More than 100,000 FoodCyclers have been sold, but Crepeau said he expects the floodgates to really open once the company gains a foothold in larger apartment and condo developments where green bins are far less convenient to use.
Cracking the multi-residential market and expanding the company’s footprint south of the border are the CEO’s top priorities – along with continuing to develop new innovations like bioplastic-degrading technology.
“That one-million-unit mark is something that we’re looking at in the not-so-distant future,” he said.
Food Cycle’s head count has risen from 17 two years ago to 44 today as it ramps up hiring to meet surging demand, and the company expects to be at 60 employees by this time next year. Crepeau says the bootstrapped enterprise is flourishing thanks to its first-mover advantage and the pressing need for its solution.
“Death, taxes and garbage – I like to say those things will always be there,” he said.
But Crepeau knows he’s not alone in sensing the market’s growing appetite for food-to-fertilizer technology.
“Noteworthy competitors” are emerging, he explained – perhaps none more notable than California-based Mill Industries.
Co-founded by Matt Rogers, whose smart thermostat startup Nest Labs was acquired by Google for more than US$3 billion in 2014, Mill was launched three years ago and came out of stealth mode in January.
The 100-employee firm says its device converts food waste into a coffee-ground-like substance overnight. Users pay a monthly fee to rent a digitally connected waste bin, and the dried byproduct is shipped to a processing plant where it is turned into animal feed.
While the company won’t say how much capital it’s raised, its high-profile backers include Google Ventures and Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Crepeau concedes that “to this point, we have enjoyed a blue ocean.” Suddenly, however, the sharks are swirling.
“We’ve got all of Silicon Valley now, with unlimited money … looking at us and saying, ‘How can we do it better?’” he said. “We have a right to win, and it’s ours to lose. But if we’re not really careful and if we’re not really strategic, there’s a lot of capable people that are ready to take this over and be winners in what will be a really exciting space.”
Still, Crepeau likes his company’s odds of emerging victorious.
“What we’re doing is really, really hard,” he said. “But we say, that’s good. Because if it’s hard for us, it’s going to be hard for the next guy.”