Food waste costs the US an estimated $218 billion per year. Since the Pittsburgh region counted more than 4,000 restaurants and other eating establishments in the region as of 2020, the Steel City isn’t immune from needing to be vigilant about how it handles its food waste. Through Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan, the city is working toward eliminating organic waste from its landfills by 2030.
A sustainability-minded startup is helping the city work toward this goal.
Through a partnership with the City’s Department of City Planning, Sustainability and Resilience Division, Ecotone Renewables will use its waste processing products to improve soil health and support urban agriculture.
The company’s partnership with the City comes as Ecotone Renewables participates in the City-run PGH Labs’ eighth cohort. CEO and cofounder Dylan Lew grew up learning about the ways climate change would impact the world locally and internationally, he told Technical.ly. Thus, his work now is meeting a long-term goal he and his cofounders had to support the region in combating climate change.
“We really see large growth opportunities here in Pittsburgh and so are doubling down on this opportunity,” Lew said. “Our priority, really, in this collaboration with the City is to help the City of Pittsburgh reach its zero waste goal by 2030.”
Ecotone Renewables operates its business on a two-sided model, Lew said. On one side is its ZEUS digester, which is an onsite waste processing solution for food service businesses. On the other side, if you’re a farmer or a community gardener, the company sells Soil Sauce made from food waste and converted into a liquid fertilizer.
“As a historical industrial hub, Pittsburgh has pretty acidic soil as well as a lot of heavy metal contamination,” the CEO said. “So soil health is something that is a really acute problem for growers, whether those are backyard gardeners, people with house plants, or large-scale industrial farmers.”
Since the company was founded in 2019, in addition to the City, it has secured contracts with the Allegheny General Hospital and is on the verge of finalizing contracts with the Pittsburgh International Airport and Meta, according to Lew. While PGH Labs is its most close-to-home accelerator, in the past year, the company was also selected as one of nearly a dozen companies throughout the world to participate in the StartOut Growth Lab accelerator cohort, a JPMorgan-supported initiative for LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
“That was a really exciting distinction we got a few months ago, and it’s been a great experience so far,” Lew said.
At the moment, Ecotone Renewables is a small operation with a hybrid work model. Its full-time employees are Lew, cofounder and COO Kyle Wyche, cofounder and CFO Elliott Bennett, an expert roboticist, and a dozen part-time, Pittsburgh-based employees who work in operations, sales and engineering. With contracts with larger institutions waiting to be finalized and farmers purchasing Soil Sauce, Lew said the company’s leaders have plans to fundraise in order to expand operations later. Currently, he said, the company is raising $2 million in a seed round.
“That’s really exciting to see the traction we’ve already built around the seed round and we’re looking to close that by May,” Lew said.
The company has also crowdfunded through a campaign with Honeycomb Credit, a fellow PGH Labs alum; as of Thursday afternoon, it had raised over $70,000 from more than 60 investors.
Looking forward, Lew said, the company’s focus is simply making sustainability accessible to and profitable for its customers.
“A lot of the time when we talk about food waste, when we talk about sustainability and soil health, a lot of it is really talking about the science behind it,” Lew said. “But as we live in a capitalist world and society, right now, it’s essential that we provide economic value and improve the bottom line for the stakeholders.”Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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