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Four headshots on top of a picture of produce

Using technology to reduce food waste

The #Sortsquad is on a mission to help grocery stores reduce their waste by using real-time data and insights.

Rosaline Chen, Paige Livingston Lopez, Joyce Xiong, and Becky Xu (pictured top left to bottom right) met one another in the Food and Health Inventors Program at UT Austin. Driven by sustainability, their project sponsor asked for their help identifying how food waste occurs in grocery stores and what solution might be invented to end it. Through mutual interest and with a wide range of skills, they came together as a team to tackle the challenge.

We interviewed the #SortSquad (SS) about their experiences creating Throw-A-Weigh as a part of our Longhorn entrepreneur series.

How did you come up with the idea?

SS: We were always passionate about food waste in grocery stores. We strove to figure out the what, where, and why of food waste in the grocery stores. From their standpoint, they handled chemical wastes, so they worked with Costco on how to recycle and donate chemicals. From there we did user research. We went out to grocery stores to observe floor employees and interviewed them about their processes for managing fresh foods. We learned that they had to toss out produce multiple times a day, and many of the grocery stores had donation channels such as food banks to help manage the high amounts of waste. A lot of grocers already had great initiatives for reducing food waste, for example, by using compost stations. Our goal, however, was to solve the problem of how to reduce food waste upstream, from the start of produce entering the grocery store.

infographic of the throw-a-weigh concept

How did UT play a role in your journey?

SS: We got together because of the Food and Health Practicum course in the CNS Inventors Program. That continuous support allowed us to do many different things. We were able to come up with a prototype in the class. Even though it was our first prototype, we got to demonstrate in front of our sponsors. Even after the program, we decided to continue the process and stay together as a team. All the help and support we received in the Inventors Program really assisted us throughout the journey. We were able to make a lot of connections along the way. The College of Natural Sciences, Inventors Program, and the Blackstone LaunchPad provided such amazing platforms for us to get together and realize our goal.

Why did you decide to start the company?

SS: After our Inventor’s Program course ended, we decided to continue working together. It was a pretty natural decision among all of us on the team. We wanted to build our solution into a larger platform and bring it to market.

What advice would you give other aspiring food and beverage entrepreneurs?

SS: The best advice we could give is to go out there and talk to your customers. Doing market research and talking to a lot of people is a continuous process. As for our own experiences, we had to find the answers to our questions by talking to as many people as it took. You have to really put yourself out there and empathize with the customers by putting yourself in their shoes. Every decision you make should be justified by your unique user research. We learned we couldn’t do things just because we liked the way they looked, and good functionality didn’t necessarily guarantee support from our sponsors. It was important for us to validate everything we had with market and user research.

How does COVID-19 impact your current business from an innovation standpoint?

SS: Fortunately, COVID-19 hasn’t been a big disruption for us. It feels like we’re running a real company.

Through the Inventors Program, which supports STEM undergraduates interested in solving big problems, the team was able to create a system for grocery retailers to make smarter decisions on food waste. Most recently, the #SortSquad Throw-A-Weigh team received the McCombs Entrepreneur Summer Fellowship 2020 and the College of Natural Science Award for Excellence in Innovation and Design. They are honored to receive these funds from UT and appreciate continued support from McCombs, the CNS Inventors Program, and Marissa Epstein. 

Learn more about how the #SortSquad is continuing to grow on their website.

Get inspired by other Longhorn entrepreneurs innovating in the food and beverage space.

Published on October 28, 2020 in What's Fresh