“The power of technology is not to sell more technology or products; the power is to give you data and to shed light on what is happening on the ground level so that you can make meaningful changes.”
[00:00:00] Nick: And momentum doesn’t always come on the scheduled trajectory that you want. It comes in bursts from random places and interesting people.
[00:00:11] Laurie: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders and independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion.
Today, we’re going to talk about an issue that surrounds all of us yet probably isn’t seen by many. And that is the problematic issue of food waste. In an age of food scarcity and supermarket deserts, more food goes to waste in the United States than ever before. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 63 billion tons of wasted food is directed to landfills annually. Not only does this mean that fresh food is not finding its way to hungry people, but the wasted byproduct is an environmental hazard, with global food waste responsible for eight percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Our guest today is someone who is playing a leading role in protecting food as one of our most valuable resources while helping address a human and environmental crisis. Nick Whitman is a 1997 graduate of Middlebury and the co-founder and chief operating officer of Divert, a green-tech startup that tackles the problems of food waste at both ends of the product’s life cycle. He’s using advanced technology to help supermarket chains keep food fresher and longer. He’s devising and providing data-driven systems to seamlessly promote food donations in communities most in need. And finally, he’s diverting food products past their sell-by date from the landfills to anaerobic digestion processors, where the wasted food is converted to renewable energy.
Nick, welcome to Midd Moment. It is so fun to have you here. And I have to begin with a confession, which is ever since my first year in India of four or five years of research and focus and so on, watching the way that economy works in relationship to waste is so much better and so much more inspiring. There is not a thing that goes to waste in, you know, food consumption, in plastics consumption, you name it. And it’s really inspiring to see the everyday solutions that people make. I have become, for the last 30 or 40 years, totally focused on food waste. It drives my husband completely crazy-
[00:02:37] Nick: I love it.
[00:02:37] Laurie: … because he likes to have food security, which means, you know, five things of yogurt. And I know that three of them are going to go to waste. I will save food beyond its expiry date, all sorts of, of awful things. I don’t have your skills, but just reading about your life and your work, I was so relieved to see someone using their Middlebury degree and their smarts to take care of something that is such a huge issue for us on our planet.
So, it was just so fun to read about what you’re doing. And I have a million questions, but let me start by asking you the first question, which is your Middlebury journey, right? You’re a poli-sci major. I know you were thinking about this, and I know you had, sort of, a moment when you’re like, “Wow, I really need to do something about it.” So, just tell us a little bit about how you got from Middlebury to what you’re doing now. And congratulations on your growth in your company, which I know is fairly recent as well. And that must be incredibly inspiring to you, too. So, just begin by telling us your Middlebury story.
[00:03:45] Nick: Sure. And first, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here. And I certainly appreciate the opportunity to connect and share. Middlebury is such a foundational experience for me. I loved my four years there. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with friends and the environment in ways that, at that point in my life, I really hadn’t done before. And so, I always think very fondly about that experience. Middlebury, for me, was that opportunity to connect with people academically. I, I probably was not lighting the world on fire at that time for a variety of different reasons which we should get into, but I think that was the biggest takeaway from my experience at Middlebury, was how to connect with the environment, ways to do that, learning in that amazing environment up there. All was just a tremendously rewarding experience.
And so, then when I came out of Middlebury, you know, in many ways, I don’t think I had the maturity at that point in life to know what I wanted to do. And I think my 20s were, in some ways, the opportunity for me to figure out what I wanted to be. And I spent a lot of time trying different roles and trying on different roles. And it wasn’t until later on when I went back to business school, that, for me, marrying the love of sustainability and the love of the environment with my love of entrepreneurship really started to bring out Divert, how we created Divert and how it started, but that sitting at the intersection of those two parts, you know, entrepreneurship and environment, is really, you know, for me, kind of, a, a formative experience.
[00:05:16] Laurie: Share more about what you mean by that and what it was that, kind of, pushed you into another space of being creative and hyper-focused to do the work of Divert.
[00:05:29] Nick: Absolutely. I remember distinctly the moment in time I was sitting in my parents’ car, and I turned on the radio. And, and they had a CD in there that was Driven to Distraction by, I think, Edward Hallowell. And I was probably 30. I had always felt like I had the capability to do more, but I could never figure out how to get my proverbial stuff together. And it was literally listening to that CD that it was just I couldn’t leave the seat for about four hours as they outline my life and my challenges. And so, you know, for those who don’t know, Driven to Distraction is, is ADHD. I went and found doctors. I got on medication. And within about 15 minutes, I think I actually cried. It was just an amazing moment that, like, everything, sort of, started to click for me. Like, I understood the challenges I had. Like, medication was a formative experience for me. It, it was, sort of, like, the difference between driving with really old windshield wipers and then putting new clean windshield wipers on.
[00:06:34] Laurie: Right.
[00:06:34] Nick: And, you know, and, for me, I, I don’t have the ADHD version, which is the hyperactivity. I have what they call, sort of, the daydreamer version.
[00:06:43] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:06:43] Nick: And so, everybody looks at you and thinks, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re normal,” but I’m sitting there thinking about 12 other things at the same time. And I have a really hard time motivating. It comes off as, sort of, inertia or laziness. For me, understanding that, getting on medication, really was just an amazing opportunity. And then once I had that, what was really interesting was then there was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Like, I wanted to go out and prove to myself, mostly, to be honest, that I could do things, like, that these ideas that I had inside me, that, you know, that I was capable of achieving certain things, like, I could actually enact.
[00:07:20] Laurie: Right. Well, first of all, both your story and the way you told that story is incredibly moving. And so, thank you for sharing it. It’s really powerful in its simplicity. I want to just say a couple things before we get back to Divert and all of its wonderful qualities and possibilities. It sounds like at Middlebury, and in any kind of educational environment, you can be perfectly functional but also be aware that you’re not quite… that creativity, that fire, that sense of, “Oh, this is where I want to go,” wasn’t there. So, it wasn’t like there was an issue that put you to rock bottom where suddenly, you know, you had to re-think or reorient. And it’s almost harder when you’re in that space of, “Yeah, I’m doing perfectly adequately,” but I love your phrase about, “All the ideas I had, you know, that weren’t quite out there.”
[00:08:19] Nick: Yes.
[00:08:20] Laurie: I think that’s such a powerful issue in our world today. You and I are different generations, but I certainly saw it, you know, versions of it, in, in my own generation. And particularly why it speaks to me, I think, is my goal as being an educator is to make sure that everybody’s voice has a place in the public square. And when you feel like there’s so many ideas that you have that aren’t getting translated, like, the number one thing to do is to make sure you feel empowered and find a way to translate those. And so, whatever it takes. And for you, it was both that show suddenly that, I guess, he must have described the symptoms. And you’re like, “Wait, that’s me, that’s me, that’s me,” within, you know, that magical and empowering 15 to 20 minutes where you could then go from there. And so, I just want to say it’s such a powerful story for educators to hear because it’s not just the person who’s sitting quietly and maybe spiraling down. It’s also that, sure, you’ve got some potential unlocked, but what’s the next level of potential for the person that’s doing just fine? You know what I’m saying?
[00:09:30] Nick: I, I absolutely do. And, I mean, I could talk for hours on this because actually, probably in the last year or so, I’ve also realized that I’m undiagnosed but definitely have some dyslexia. My daughter has dyslexia. She went to Carroll School, an amazing school here in, in our area, for that. And seeing how her brain works and understanding a little bit more about my brain, I started to see the connections. And, and to your point, I’m a huge believer of neurodiversity. In some cases, I think it’s a little bit underrepresented on the diversity spectrum because bringing people together who think differently is such an important part of that, and people’s… how their brains look at problems. They may not be the most organized… you know. I’ll never be the most organized person, but I think I can approach problems and come up with solutions that other folks can’t.
[00:10:16] Laurie: Yeah. It’s interesting. The way you described it also, I think, is so important for both entrepreneurs and educators. And I want to pivot to that in a second, but the other thing is I think about this all the time. What are the thoughts that people have in their heads that, for some reason, don’t make it to the top, but are those thoughts actually part of that person’s creativity and brilliance? I’m a deep believer in both collective genius, that there is no such thing as a soul genius. There’s always a social formation that allows that creativity to shine and the capacity for hard work and all the stuff that we know is part of deep creativity. I also, you know, firmly believe that every single person has that. And it is our job to make sure that the world and the social environment around that human being can unlock that, you know. And, of course, that’s a tough ideal to hold because we fail at it every day. And yet, the point is we’re trying. And when we do succeed, you know, that’s incredibly rewarding. But when you walk around the world thinking about what are the ideas that people aren’t saying but could be truly awesome, it just totally changes your worldview.
[00:11:33] Nick: You’re speaking my language. And I see this with our kids, too, all the time. And you’re in the midst of the conversation and they’re just throwing out some other comment that’s in from right field that-
[00:11:41] Laurie: Right.
[00:11:41] Nick: … it’s all of a sudden crystal clear that they have not been following or listening or caring about whatever what I thought was an amazing point.
[00:11:49] Laurie: Yes.
[00:11:49] Nick: And they’re just off with this idea. And it’s super important. It’s, like, it’s, it’s the ability to then take that idea and add onto it and build it. And great ideas and, and momentum doesn’t always come on the scheduled trajectory that you want. It comes in bursts from random places and interesting people.
[00:12:06] Laurie: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. So, I noticed that you were talking about, at business school, you felt more ready because of some of this reflection and thought and so on. And it was really in business school that you were able to, kind of, coalesce around some of these issues. Would that be accurate?
[00:12:23] Nick: Yes, but I would say it was less about business school. I mean, business school was a great experience for me. Honestly, I just figured this out as I started business school. I beat myself up pretty heavily in my 20s in terms of why am I not-
[00:12:38] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:12:39] Nick: … on a different track. You know, I didn’t understand myself at that point. So, you, you end up doing what we all do unhealthily is compare yourself to your friends and colleagues and which is just, you know, a horribly unhealthy practice. But I had a lot of good soft skills in the business world. I didn’t have a lot of quantitative skills. And so, business school was a great opportunity for me to build out my skill set, but it also was hitting me at a time where, as I mentioned earlier, I was ready to grow and to learn. And I was also passionate about entrepreneurship. I was passionate about doing something. As I mentioned earlier, I was passionate about the environment. And, you know, food waste, I think it hit me in many ways. It hasn’t been a lifelong passion. Like, it hit me, sort of, the way you talked about it in that you open the fridge, and you take out a box of strawberries, and it’s a box of strawberries you bought yesterday, and half of them are rotten. And it just makes you angry. And it’s less about the dollars that you just spent. It’s about the resources that went into those strawberries. It’s the effort to grow them, and water them, and ship them, and box them, market them, you know, and then people are taking them and putting them on the store shelves. All of that is energy, is resources, is carbon. And then you get it to us. And poof, it’s gone.
[00:13:58] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:13:58] Nick: And so, like, that, that really was, you know, for me, sort of, the impetus, that anger and frustration as to why, why does this happen? Why does our supply chain work this way? How can we solve it? You know, and when you start to then peel out the onions on the problem, we realize there’s no one else trying to solve it. It is a very complex issue. And, you know, we went out at that point in time and started the business and made all sorts of, which we can walk through, but all sorts of bad decisions and, you know, almost killed the business many different times, but it was ultimately started behind the passion of food waste and why that problem exists.
[00:14:36] Laurie: So, for me, the food and space moment, there were two, but I remember it was in 1984 when I’d gotten back after my first year in India. I think I was 23. So, I still had all of the idealism and related judgmentalism. I walked into my parents’ house, and I said, “You could fit five families in, you know, the first floor if you just rearrange this.” And my poor parents were like, “Oh,” you know, “What did we do wrong?” And then the second thing was, you know, looking at their fridge and looking at expiry dates. And I went shopping with my mom. And at that point, because, you know, you’re absorbing everything, and after a year, when you are living, you know, on a shoestring already, et cetera, this was before Whole Foods. This was, you know, Finast, or whatever that was. And I’d be like, “Oh, my God. This is all about the image of food and not the food.”
Scott Peck has a wonderful definition of evil, which is the image at all costs. And what you care about is only the image at all costs and not the thing. And that, that’s well-meaning people just go into that space, and they don’t even know it. And I was like, “No, these people only care about the image of the food and not the food.” And I was really mean to my parents and to everybody at that point, but that moment of re-entry into an American grocery store, and now, of course, everywhere has grocery stores like that, but I just thought this is not the way to be in, you know, relationship to food. So, that was, I think, for me, the moment. Did you have a food moment? Like, I know you were thinking about it and you were in B-school and people were encouraging you in getting your quantitative skills, but was there a moment in a consumer environment or a time when you saw the 10 percent that people build into their financial models in grocery stores where it’s assumed waste? That was the other moment. And it might be different statistic now, but when I think about the fact that by assuming that 10 percent of the food on this planet is going to be thrown out, I just couldn’t stand that, you know, as a statistic. And I had all the judgmentalism of a 23-year-old. So, anyway, did you have a food moment?
[00:16:47] Nick: I don’t know if you and I should talk about this because we’re going to rile each other up. And by the end of it, we’re going to be, we’re, we’re going to be screaming out of anger at the problem because it’s inefficient.
[00:16:56] Laurie: I know, I know. Admiring the problem.
[00:16:59] Nick: Oh, the inefficiency is staggering.
[00:17:02] Laurie: Yes.
[00:17:02] Nick: So, the answer is yes. You know, obviously, as I mentioned, just seeing it at home is one thing, but when you see it at, at, at not even a full scale, but let’s say a little bit of scale, you go into a supermarket and you see what they’re throwing away, I had the same reaction. One is, like, you can’t believe that every store is throwing 600 to 700 pounds of food away each day.
[00:17:24] Laurie: Right.
[00:17:25] Nick: That’s amazing. Let’s put that aside. Then you can’t believe that how much of it is good food, how much of that is food that is still edible. I mean, of course, there’s some stuff that’s not, but it’s, it’s not perfect, but it’s still edible. And then if you go even further, you look at the food, you can’t believe that the expiration dates, there’s such variability. So, certain expiration dates, you know, will tell you that the product’s already expired, and other expiration dates in that same bin will tell you that it’s expiring in a week.
[00:17:56] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:17:56] Nick: And so, how do we get to that point that that material is being thrown away? There’s a huge failure of compliance. And lastly, there’s a huge economic cost. And, and we can’t avoid that. I think we can all be environmentalists, but we also have to be pragmatic environmentalists. And we have to find how we can make this work economically. And supermarkets, you know, I, I got to be a little careful with my numbers here, so I don’t get my customers in trouble, but supermarkets oftentimes throw away, from a dollar equivalency standpoint, the same as their profit margin each month.
[00:18:28] Laurie: Wow. Okay.
[00:18:31] Nick: There’s not another industry that has that level of inefficiency.
[00:18:35] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:18:37] Nick: And so, when we start to look at the problem, it’s a massive problem. There’s all sorts of reasons. We could spend all day talking about the different reasons that happens. And it, it happens at the grower level. It happens at the transportation level, at the store level, but, like, at the end of the day, it’s happening. So, how do we take that and start to figure out, yes, we should turn that into energy, yes, we should keep that on landfills, like, yes, we need to avoid the, the methane releasing for that? But also, can we get that into consumers? Can we help them run a discount program? Like, why can’t we discount that food and get it to those who want to buy it? And if people don’t want to buy it, why can’t we get that into the food donation networks, Feeding America, whatever it might be? And that’s really the kernel of, of where we started with this journey is how to fight that inefficiency and how to approach it from a holistic standpoint in terms of being able to find solutions that can work across the spectrum.
[00:19:29] Laurie: Yeah. Well, the phrase across the spectrum is really the key to what I think is so awesome about Divert. And that is you’re doing things at a number of different scales. So, some people… I do interfaith work. And the largest, kind of, amount of interfaith collaboration in the United States is food pantries, right, where everybody comes and plays in that space. And the number of interfaith organizations that are most successful are focused on food. And so, people literally do their whole lives making sure that the stuff that groceries stores may throw out get delivered to food shelters. That’s, like, a whole career in its own right, right? So, you’re doing that, plus looking at data analytics on looking at how to assess the freshness of food, right, that wonderful story, and the piece I read about you about the lettuce, and is the head of lettuce really fresh or not?
So, you’re developing that technology. And we have a whole other hours-long conversation about biodigesters because as you know, as part of our Energy2028, we have built a biodigester. So, I want to put a pin in that to come back to. But I have to think about all that stuff because I run a college. And if the, you know, dining hall says, “We got to be more efficient around food,” that person has the expertise, I don’t, to, sort of, figure that out. But you’re really tackling it at so many different levels. It’s both the local. But people tend to go… when they go to food solutions, oftentimes, they go rightly to the local. Our Knoll is always thanking the people who work at our organic garden. And it’s now a really deep tradition. It’s wonderful. They’re always thinking locally. And they’re thinking about food systems. But what impresses me about Divert, and clearly, what’s part of your success, is it’s also big. It’s not just local. You’ve got AI going on in there. You’ve got energy conversion going on in there. And that is what really strikes me as the difference maker in your company. Would you agree with that?
[00:21:32] Nick: We should bring you into our fundraising sessions. I think so. We get asked a lot about the competition and, and whatnot, but the truth is there’s no one tackling the problem with the breadth that we are tackling it at. And so, I would agree with your statement. I think I’m not sure that’s how we set out on this journey to doing that. I think we set out to solve the food waste challenge. And we started with biodigesters. And we could talk all about the lessons learned there. But as we kept getting into this problem along the way, what we’re really good at is partnering with customers who have problems. And we always figured if we can create value for those customers. And let’s not worry about, like, how we’re going to monetize it as much. We’re going to get them to pay for it, but if we lose a little bit of money, that’s okay. But if we create value for these customers, and we do something that they can’t do themselves, we will always have a place in this world as a company. And so, as we went through this journey, we would find little problems that were connected to the food waste problem.
So, I’ll give you an example. Early on, we were trying to figure out how to scale. We were in the back of the Hannaford Bros. We were trying to understand the logistics network. And we realized that they use their empty trucks that just delivered food and now are driving back to their central warehouse to bring all of their recyclable materials. And so, the light bulb there was, well, why can’t we put food waste on those trucks? And so, we started to approach different customers. And very quickly, we realized that it really wasn’t food waste. When you thought about it this way, it was simply the bruised apple that fell on the ground, and you didn’t buy. It’s not the smelly food waste that everybody thinks. We put it on their trucks. We’ve now cut out waste management. We’ve developed a really unique reverse logistics process that allows us to aggregate material at scale and cheaper than everybody else. The program itself, actually, customers began to love because it was a lot easier than simply having everybody throw it into a huge dumpster at the back of the store. And so, that innovation really came about by simply us asking questions and trying to create value. And we did that over and over again throughout the 16 years until, as you noted, we ended up with a pretty complex business doing a lot of different things, but ultimately developing a platform to be the leader in solving the waste of food crisis.
[00:23:53] Laurie: So, what strikes me is that you took what we would call today, I think it was probably not as current a language although it certainly existed when you were in college, which is problem-based learning, right? Which is there are two things that strike me about your story. One is it is problem-based learning at its core, right? What’s the need? It’s human-centered design. What are the little problems? But you didn’t subordinate those little problems to something bigger. So, you allowed those little problems to become part of the identity of the company. I’m going to throw out a hypothesis because this occurred to me as I was thinking a little bit about your company and your work, which is given the scale of the climate crisis and global warming and so on, you know, we have our summit happening, today, yesterday, we’re going to make progress, so the nation’s going to come together, you almost want you to be so successful that you become a utility, right? You were talking about competitors. And I think, “Okay. Good. That could help,” but you should be going for ubiquity at a certain level given that everyone should be having these kinds of… My guess is that some areas put the food waste on the returning truck habit, but a lot of people still don’t, whereas there are very few places in the United States that don’t have electricity, right? So, there’s, there’s, like, a level at which your ability to address or the approach that you have to address climate change needs to be so great that it’s almost part of the infrastructure that no one thinks about except the people whose job it is to create and maintain that essential infrastructure. You know what I’m saying? Does that make sense?
[00:25:33] Nick: I do. I’m going to, I’m going to change the language a little bit-
[00:25:36] Laurie: Yeah, please.
[00:25:36] Nick: … but I think you’re spot on with, with your point. Waste is, in many ways, a utility right now-
[00:25:42] Laurie: Right. Good point.
[00:25:43] Nick: … but the challenge is the current waste infrastructure, we have not aligned stakeholders’ incentives. So, the incentive for the waste world is to put as much material into their landfill as possible. And they’re incredibly profitable. And they don’t really care whether… Actually, well, sorry, they do care. They actually want you to give them more waste.
[00:26:04] Laurie: Right.
[00:26:04] Nick: What I think we need to do is we need to institutionalize how to align stakeholders around performance. And so, if we can align our interests with our customers’ interests, and that we still can make money and be profitable, and they can save money and be profitable, and together, we have a huge impact on the environment, if we can do that with incentives that drive waste down, then effectively, what we’ve done is we’ve removed this whole pain point in the economy, in the industry. So, the way we do that is we actually have altered a lot of our contracts. We’ve altered the, the way we work with our customers so that we actually have fixed contracts, and that if we reduce the amount of material for them, yes, our revenue goes down a little bit, but our margins go up substantially. And so, it’s a huge driver for them to improve performance. And it’s been an amazing way to make an impact.
[00:27:02] Laurie: Well, that’s the other thing that you said this earlier, and you just said it again, I was going to follow up with this question, which is not worrying about your revenue going down for a bit, that is also an incredibly powerful thing. That’s more what I do and think about as a non-profit leader, which is our whole Energy2028, there are certain moves because we will be entirely powered in our core campus by renewable fuels. You know, I think we’re going to get there, which is truly exciting and fun. And it’s going to cost us a little bit to do that. And for me, is it the educational purpose and is our mission purpose, both of which are hugely focused? Middlebury’s mission these days in its educational space is how do we not just create environmental leaders but environmental solution-makers? And my mantra is if you’re going to lead, you’re going to bleed. In this environment, it’s not just being at the cutting edge. It’s being at the bleeding edge, right? But I have a non-profit mission. So, it’s okay for me to invest more as long as we are fiscally responsible and keep our engines moving in the right direction and have a really good financial plan, so we exist 200 years from now. That, you know, is going to make a difference.
[00:28:17] Nick: Absolutely. I think my job, especially as we’ve grown up here, is to figure out where we’re going in 10 years, and then to make the investments and resources and people and time to get there and not necessarily to worry about the short-term scorecard.
[00:28:35] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:28:36] Nick: I’m very similar to what you outlined for Middlebury. And I, you know, I love Middlebury’s leadership position in this. It’s been amazing to see, you know, the Energy2028 campaign. I love it. But in, in many ways, that viewpoint also is, is probably what students have to have.
[00:28:50] Laurie: Totally. Right.
[00:28:51] Nick: Right? You have to be able to understand who you are, what’s your inner purpose, and that, you know, that’s a very hard question, but who do you want to be and where are you going? And then you have to avoid and ignore all the noise-
[00:29:01] Laurie: Yep.
[00:29:01] Nick: … right? When you see your friend who’s in investment banking making three times as much, or someone gets promoted, that can’t be impactful for you. That can’t impact your journey. You can compliment them, that can be great news for them, but you have to then know where you’re going and be able to withstand some of that noise along the way. And I feel like that’s what we’ve been able to do. We’ve been able to make those investments that didn’t always make sense at the time, but ultimately tied into this larger idea of protecting the value of food.
[00:29:29] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:29:30] Nick: And so, when we looked at getting into building our own hardware, building our own software around RFID, I remember, at the time, talking to some of our board and, and them not understanding it. And for us, it was really clear. We are getting all this material back from our customers. We are now starting to see that they’re throwing stuff that shouldn’t be into these bins. We’re starting to see non-compliant bins. We have to be able to understand where that material is coming from, and we have to understand what store that’s coming from so that we can not only stop it, but we can start to then take that data and start to give that back to the customers to be able to provide them light into what’s happening at their individual stores.
[00:30:10] Laurie: Right.
[00:30:11] Nick: And that’s the power of technology. The power of technology is not to sell more technology or products. The power is to give you data and to give you light on what actually is happening on the ground level so that you can make meaningful changes.
[00:30:24] Laurie: Yeah. So, I’m going to extend that insight into an area which my guess is you have all sorts of wisdom about, but you may not have reached yet, or maybe you have, which is because I have the same fascination, but I haven’t made a career out of waste and what waste is. I have a poem about waste in my first book of poems.
[00:30:43] Nick: I need to see that, by the way.
[00:30:44] Laurie: I will send you my poem about waste. There’s a Sanskrit word that can mean either something sacred or something thrown away, you know. It depends on the context. So, the Boothbay recycling center is also… it has a methane hill, you know, with a little pipe coming out of it and-
[00:31:00] Nick: Yeah.
[00:31:01] Laurie: … it’s really well-run. Certain kinds of my friends just love going there because they also resell. So, they have, like, a… not a resell, and maybe it is. I can’t remember if it’s really low price or whether it’s free, but I think it’s free. And people love this place. They go in and they get awesome stuff because people take the time to figure out, you know, what the wood waste is, you know, all these other things. So, you know, I teach religion, but also interested in cultural anthropology. I’m teaching an anthropology class this semester on religion. And I’m thinking culturally. And I’m thinking just put a coffee shop in there and you’ll get a community center because people love going there and they love, like, sharing what the deal is. So, it’s not only, “Here’s waste that can be recycled,” which people have to focus on because there’s a huge recycling center there and they’re, kind of, scary because they really make you determine which number of plastic it is, and you can’t just throw all your plastic in, and there’s a person there making sure you do it right, but it’s like a whole… Yeah, I don’t know if you remember the Richard Scarry Drawings, the Busy Busy World. I love stuff like that. And it feels like that’s what it is. And I’m like, if we could just make it one more step, it would be even more of a community kind of place and sensibility, and some parts of it won’t spell too great, but, but it would be really fun to have. So, I’m thinking about, you know, just… And this is, like, a highly functioning one that everybody loves. I’m just thinking about waste centers in general. So, it seems to me sometimes that waste centers themselves are wasteful, or even recycling centers themselves are wasteful.
[00:32:39] Nick: I’m going to go a slightly different direction, but I, I love the concept because I think, at the end of the day, our goal is we would love to get rid of waste altogether. Period.
[00:32:49] Laurie: Period. Totally. Like, just recycle everything in the world. Yeah. Totally.
[00:32:53] Nick: Period. And actually, when you think about waste, food waste is a huge part of that because once you get rid of food waste, you’ve now made the rest of that material accessible. It’s no longer wet. Everything else is no longer wet. It’s no longer dense and heavy and bulky. Once you pull food waste out and solve that problem, what’s left is a bunch of plastic and paper and miscellaneous stuff that becomes really small. And that’s one of the reasons why we are building the, you know, infrastructure to build 30 facilities across the country and to get within 100 miles of 80 percent of the population in the next six years is, is simply because food waste is such a critical problem, both from an admission standpoint, we’ll talk about food insecurity, but also just in terms of being able to then actually solve the full waste problem. But to go back to your point, I think what I think of waste, I actually think of waste as problematic because it’s not waste. It’s really this light into how we live and how we operate. And then I’m going to get myself in trouble since I think you just told me you were an anthropology expert, but I’ve always heard that one of the first things they did when they studied old societies is to find the waste pits. And that when they went on digs, when they went through those, they could figure out how those societies lived. And that what they found in those things gave them clues as to how those societies lived.
[00:34:12] Laurie: Yes.
[00:34:13] Nick: And so, when we, when we think about waste, like, I think we have to get away from this idea of calling it waste. We have to get away from this concept of we’re just throwing it away, because what we’re really throwing away is data. We’re throwing away insights. And we have to figure out how we take that, digitize that information so we understand what it is, and then let’s figure out what that tells us about the operations and the performance and the society as a whole.
[00:34:37] Laurie: Right. I completely agree with you. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, talks about dirt as matter out of place, right? That’s all that dirt is. And so, it’s the same basic idea. And I think, culturally, I think what you’re putting your finger on is the sense that we, as a culture, need to consume and therefore have something that we don’t want, right? We have something that we identify as what we want, but the amount of energy it takes to keep that category of what we don’t want is huge, right? And that’s what creates, you know, the wasteful fashion industry, and what creates the, the islands of plastic in the ocean, and so on. And so, what if we said we wanted that, too? And that, I think, is part of why your company is so interesting is you’re, kind of, saying, “Hey, there are places for that waste to go that we always knew were there, but we didn’t get there as efficiently as we need to, to one point.” Just moving to the biodigester thing, what our experience was that it’s really based on your same model, which is we’ve been working with a farm in Salisbury for 10 years, and we hadn’t quite found the right connection to build this biodigester, but we knew we could. And then when we connected with the company that did… we did build it with Vanguard, the folks at Vanguard had their own investors who were really interested in seeing this project work. So, the challenge for us was initially design, but then we found the right conversation partners. But it was really driven at first by how do we help this farm, this dairy farm, be sustainable? And that actually created more of a human incentive and a human-colored, a humane incentive than it would have if I had just said, “Okay. Now, we need to be energy efficient.” You know what I’m saying? It was a-
[00:36:21] Nick: Absolutely.
[00:36:22] Laurie: … cultural issue. Yeah. So, I’m sure you can connect. And, and so, you’re going to be building biodigesters as well all over the country. Is that right?
[00:36:30] Nick: Yeah. So, our start was in digestion. Back in 2010, we built, at, at that point, the largest digestion facility in North America out in Compton, California partnered with Kroger. Kroger has been an amazing partner over the years. And we started there. And we learned. And we built it. And that technology has been, as you know, been around in Europe forever. I think what’s different for us is we put some of our own flavor in it. So, rather than just bringing over a European partner, we went out and found a bunch of different equipment from different industries and integrated it in unique ways to handle contaminated packaged food waste, which has its own set of challenges. But all of that ultimately was done so we can gain the expertise to build digestion facilities across the country and build that infrastructure that the U.S. needs. And it, it is done for… you know, it supports individual customers, as you noted, but for us, the ability to build these in dense geographic centers near heavy populations now allows us to go out and capture all of the other food waste that exists outside of just supermarkets.
[00:37:36] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:37:36] Nick: And so, that’s always been the long-term goal, to be able to start with supermarkets, build value for them, capture their food waste, make sure it doesn’t go to landfill, but then once we’ve done that, you know, now we can go, go to restaurants, and we can go to the Panera’s of the world, and we can ultimately go to just the long tail-
[00:37:52] Laurie: Yep.
[00:37:52] Nick: … to capture all that food waste because we have to get it out of landfill. We have to keep that from landfills for a variety of different reasons, but globally, food waste counts for about 10% of global emissions. You know, it’s an amazing, sort of, staggering statistic on top of the fact that roughly 40 million Americans are food insecure.
[00:38:11] Laurie: Yes.
[00:38:12] Nick: And so, we have this food. We have to figure out how to capture and protect the value of it and find different ways to channel it through the supply chain into those who really need it.
[00:38:23] Laurie: Yeah. So, maybe if you could describe one moment that you’ve had? What was the day like when you’re like, “Oh, I don’t think this is going to work. Maybe it’s time for me to, kind of, move into another…” or whatever that would be? And how did you move beyond it? If there is a moment that you can remember.
[00:38:41] Nick: Oh, man. There’s so many moments. I was doing a podcast the other day. And they asked me, they said, “Well, now that you’re a success…” and I just started laughing because, first off, I find that so comical because the number of the stuff that we’re still dealing with and struggling through. And we have days where we think we’re doing great and we’re changing the world. Now, we have days where we feel like the dumbest people in the planet because we can’t believe the mistake we made. So, like, I, I don’t know that, from an entrepreneur standpoint, like, I don’t know that I ever lose that paranoia and that, sort of, feeling of a little bit of failure, but there’s definitely moments along the way that were scary, right? And I, I could spend all day talking to different failure points, but, I mean, I remember distinctly early on, we built a small-scale test facility. And our model at that time was to put these units at individual supermarkets, you know, small-scale units, rather than aggregation and scale. And we thought, “Oh, this is the best thing in the world. We’d raise a little bit of money.” And we were going and picking up food waste in an old dump truck. This is probably 2008. We were picking up in an old dump truck, driving it the highway. We were then loading it. We were in a garage in Burlington, Mass. We would then let it sit there for all day. These were big containers of food waste, flies everywhere. And then we would be loading that food into the system at 3:00 in the morning because we were not zoned correctly for what we were doing. And so, we decided to load the system at 3:00 in the morning. And you had this moment of, “What are we doing? Like, what are we doing?” And I remember talking to a few folks. And actually, one of our investors, a super impactful person in my life who ultimately later passed away, but I just remember him saying, “It doesn’t matter what you told us in the past. It doesn’t matter what you thought was the right in the past. What matters is what is the right solution now? What are you going to do now based on the information you have today, not assumptions you made or best, but, like, what you know today.”
[00:40:48] Laurie: Right.
[00:40:49] Nick: “What are you going to do?” And when it became clear, I was like, “All right. We’re going to have to shut this system down. We’re going to have to go back to our customer and explain it to them. You know, we’re going to have to basically go out and alter the entire business model.” And it was one of those moments in time, I guess now they’re called pivots, right, but it’s, like, that, sort of, everything is dark, are we going to make it out, that you wonder is this going to work? And, and for me, the, the interesting thing was, like, because of my career earlier, and we talked about the struggles there, there wasn’t anything to fall back on. And so, you know, this had to work.
[00:41:18] Laurie: Yeah.
[00:41:18] Nick: I’m still convinced I was unemployable then, and maybe even today, maybe even today. We had to make it work. And there was no, like, “Oh, I’m going to go bail out and take that job in finance.” It was, “Okay. We’re going to take 12 hours to sulk. And now, we’re going to go figure out how we’re going to change this and how we’re going to fix it, how we’re going to make it right with our customers,” and that mentality of building value slowly, of generating trust with customers. We have five Fortune 100 customers. And we’re very proud that we haven’t lost one in 16 years. And that’s not because we don’t make mistakes. It’s because we talk to them honestly and candidly. And, and that’s part of that journey to figuring out, you know, how we build an entity that ultimately should be and will be bigger than us.
[00:42:02] Laurie: Yeah. So, Nick, it was so fun to talk to you. I know we could go forever on this. And I’m so grateful to you for taking on one of the world’s most challenging problems and, you know, just hanging in there and being with people and figuring it out. You know, I talk about Middlebury alums as low-ego, high-impact. You embody that at so many different levels. And Middlebury is grateful to you. And I know the world should also be grateful to you at this point. And congratulations again on all of your success, as well as all of your creative problem solving.
[00:42:34] Nick: Thank you so much. Love being here. Appreciate your time. Appreciate your kind words. Love to meet Middlebury people along the way. So, thank you so much.
[00:42:44] Laurie: We’d like to thank Nick Whitman for joining us in conversation today. Midd Moment is hosted by me, Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury. The podcast is executive produced by Matt Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, and produced, engineered, and edited by Caitlin Whyte and the terrific folks at the podcast agency, University FM. Research on this episode was provided by Jessie Raymond. For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.