From Waste to Value, with Jessica Aguirre and Bertha Jimenez
Episode 142: From Waste to Value, with Jessica Aguirre and Bertha Jimenez
The seeds of Jessica Aguirre and Bertha Jimenez’s RISE Products were planted when the duo met at a program through their graduate studies. Their interest in sustainability and their common background from Ecuador inevitably made them business partners and founders of RISE Products, producing flour from brewer’s spent grain. On this episode, Jessica and Bertha talk about how they started their company, industrial symbiosis and why it matters, as well as how to incorporate sustainable practices in businesses. The duo also touch on sexism in their industry and the obstacles they faced as immigrants in the United States.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Maricella, I have a question for you.
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Yes? I may or may not have an answer for you, but I can try.
00:25 KW: If you could make beer and make brownies, would that get you excited?
00:33 MH: Very. [chuckle]
00:35 KW: Well, that is what... That is what our guests today, Jessica and Bertha, the founders of RISE product company are doing. And it's super cool. It's somewhat over my head in the science department, but they're looking at ways to re-use food product, food waste, to create other sustainable sources of food in a meaningful way that helps to provide better access to food around the world. So in this instance, they were looking at the beer production and all the hops that are used for beer and much of that is just thrown in the garbage, you can't use it anymore, but they've been able to take it and turn it into flour that then becomes usable for baked goods, for anything you would use to make flour. But it's just really re-imagining one woman's trash is another woman's treasure. And I like that because I think that so oftentimes, when we talk about entrepreneurship and we talk about innovation, it's always about creating something new. But here, they're taking something that already exists and re-inventing it in a way to drive more impact. So it's a great interview. Clearly, I'm so excited and they brought me brownies, so that's always a plus as well.
01:53 MH: I've so many thoughts in my head right now, but I think the one that's kind of killing everything is I'm very hungry.
02:01 MH: And the conversation about brownies did not help. But I am now very, very, very excited about this. I think this is really, really cool what they're doing. And I am a fervent believer that innovation should drive things to be better, not just to be new. Not new and shiny, but how do we improve everything we're doing and everything that's happening in the world. There's so much room for... There's always room for improvement. So if we can use things that we're gonna throw away and make them into amazing brownies... Cannot stop thinking about brownies. [chuckle]
02:43 KW: And for our listeners, there'll be some more commentary on this in the coming months. One of our friends, Shamini Dhana who's also a member of the B Corp community and a member of Ellevate's community, thinks a lot about how we recycle goods and are more sustainable and socially conscious when it comes to the manufacturing of clothes. And here, Jessica and Bertha are really looking at the food industry. So across the board, there's ways that we tackle all of these sectors to re-imagine how we go beyond the trash can into something that is beneficial, something that's better for the environment, that's better for people. And with Jessica and Bertha, what I really like is that it's really creating a low-cost, sustainable food source that can easily apply to developing countries, to people in need, in ways that we have not even really thought of yet. And so that gets me excited. There's a book that my kids love called... It's silly, but it's "Garbage! Monster! Burp!" is the book, but it's told through the eyes of kids and it goes into ways in which their town was just throwing things away and throwing things away and the garbage monster just kept eating it and then the garbage monster got sick. And how the kids took control to reduce trash, to reduce waste, to recycle, to re-use, to stop doing things in order to better help the monster feel better.
04:22 KW: And I think that resonates with me 'cause my kids love that story. And we then talk about what are the ways for them to be more respectable of our environment, of our planet, and their impact on it, and Jessica and Bertha are truly role models for me in that case, in that instance, and I hope they are for you, too.
04:42 MH: I'm sure they will and I want to see that book now. [chuckle]
04:46 KW: I'll share it with you, I promise.
04:47 MH: Cool. Thanks.
04:48 KW: Alright. Well, thanks and we hope you enjoy the conversation with Jessica and Bertha from RISE Products Co.
05:01 KW: So, Jessica and Bertha, thanks for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast. It's really great to have you here.
05:12 Speaker 4: Thank you so much for the invitation. We're happy to be here.
05:17 KW: What you're doing at RISE Products is something near and dear to our hearts here at Ellevate because we love to connect with companies that are focused on social impact, that are doing it in innovative and creative ways, and that are really changing the world for the better. So can you tell us a little bit about what RISE Products is?
05:37 Speaker 5: Sure. Hi, as well. Thank you so much for having us here. RISE Products is a food tech start-up that takes organic by-products and convert it into ingredients. Currently, we are working with the brewery industry and what we do is we take the leftover grain, which is called a spelt grain, and this is just malted barley that has been boiled and crushed. So after they have used it to make their beer, we go there, we take it in a food-grade manner, we take it to our facility in Long Island City and then, through our proprietary process, we transform it into a flour that's high-protein, high-fiber and low in carbohydrates. And that ingredient, we sell it to bakers, chefs and food manufacturers. We also have started selling to individuals, but most of our business is B2B.
06:36 S5: And what is interesting about our process is that, as you can see, we are immigrants and the rest of our team is also from different parts of the world. So when we were thinking of what to do, we were thinking to create an accessible technology that someday, we hope, we can also bring it back to our home countries. Like we're from Ecuador, we have people from India and Lithuania, so we wanted to create something that wouldn't be super high-tech that it will only be focusing on... Will only be useful in places like these ones, but we also wanted to be in other places. And also, the interesting part of our technology, of our process, is that also works with other by-products, like by-products of soy milk, by-products of juice, by-products of distilleries and we also create food-grade ingredients.
07:28 KW: I am so excited about this. I think food tech is probably not... When we're all hearing about tech and startups, not what rolls off the tongue, but it's incredibly important. And the impact of how we use technology to create better food processes to reduce, up-cycle, reuse food is particularly important, not just as we're starting to see the impact of environmental on crops, but also population growth, and access to food and there's numerous applications. But in terms of just grain alone, I read a stat on your website, and so that's what I'm getting to. What exactly is the scope of what you're doing today? The amount of grain that's typically... I don't know what you say, gotten rid of, after the brewing process that you're now making into something else.
08:24 S5: Sure. So worldwide, is 42 million tons of this grain, and this is disposed every year. And I think that's also deeply connected to Jessica and I because if we could be able to transform this into an ingredient as flour, that's super, super nutritious, we could feed the whole population of South America where both of us are from. Just with one by-product, and there's so many by-products outside, we could make something so useful for like... Imagine like the whole population of South America.
09:06 KW: Wow. How did you get started, Jessica? What got you to this point today, what is your story?
09:12 S4: It has been a very long journey and it did not start with flour. I met Bertha while I was doing my Master's at NYU and Bertha was doing her PhD. So NYU posted an initiative about connecting different schools in NYU about ideas, how can we make our cities more sustainable? So different students post ideas, at the end of few months they selected 18 people with six ideas and they send them to a small bootcamp, like business bootcamp in Shanghai. And that's where I met Bertha, all the way there. And the idea that Bertha has, it was with the concept of industrial symbiosis, which says, "How can we use the by-product of a company as the raw material for another one?" And the idea was creating a marketplace, so we can foster that, connecting industries.
10:07 S4: So when I met her, and you know we're from Ecuador, so it was immediate click, I thought it was very interesting. So when we came back to New York, she told me, "Would you be interested in working in this idea?" And it was... It started like small things, attending to entrepreneur festivals or maybe network events. I was not an entrepreneur myself, but I thought it was something interesting that it can lead us to somewhere else. And then we focused on what's happening here in New York and we found out that there were a lot of craft breweries, so that's how we come to select one industry. And then we saw that the spelt grain was an ingredient, a very good, rich ingredient and then we start trying to see what can we do with that. So we took the spelt grain and then we used it to make dog biscuits, soap, paper and we end up with an easy form of flour that we can give it to restaurants, bakeries and they could do something else because we are not coming from the food... We don't have a food background. It's more like engineering, like, how can we make a process? How can we make better? And just bringing a solution to some inefficiencies that we saw. So that's how we started.
11:26 KW: Oh, my goodness. And Bertha, what's your story? How did you get to NYU?
11:33 S5: How I got to NYU? Well, as she said, as I told you, I'm from Ecuador. I have a degree, my bachelors in Mechanical Engineering and then I have... I was in Portland working on engineering management, my Master's and then I... I didn't know what to do with my life at that time, so I didn't wanna be in Portland. I didn't wanna be in Ecuador, but I... So I was looking where to go and I really wanted to continue with the research and that's how I ended in doing my PhD at NYU. But one of the things... Like when I was in Ecuador, when I finished my mechanical engineering degree, I was working with an environmental consulting company and I have always been... I think it's a cultural thing in Ecuador. We are very resourceful, we always try to see if there's inefficiency in the system, as Jessica said, how can we resolve that? Especially as an engineering mindset, the process are something that we're kind of like it's part of the way we think.
12:47 S5: And one of the things that I... When I was in Ecuador is like when I was in this environmental consulting company, I went to this fish, packaging fish industry, and I saw... My boss at that time, her main saying was to do waste management. So I was following her. I was like the junior engineering and I was following her and I was like learning what she was looking on waste management but she was more looking on waste management practices, best practices. And she was asking always like, "Oh, whether like your like solid waste, liquid waste, what do you that?" And in this particular company, they told us that they didn't have any type of waste. And for me was like, "Wow that's really impressive." Because usually the typical answer is like, "Yes, we have this, we put it in the garbage, the truck comes every day and they take it." You know? Like that's the typical...
13:57 KW: We just throw it away and something happens to it. I don't know.
14:00 S5: Yeah, so like... But this industry, they didn't have any solid or liquid form of waste. And I saw that was fascinating. And one of the things like with the solid... Like the liquid waste they recycled internally for other uses. But for the solid waste, that basically was the skin of the fish and the spine and the scales of the fish, they sold that to a company in Florida that make gelatin because that's one of their raw materials for making gelatin, the collagen that is inside those, like those parts of the fish that usually they could have [14:37]. And I felt like that was fascinating, like how they found this usage in something that usually what people will think, "What are you gonna be doing with a bunch of fish skins," you know?
14:50 KW: Sure.
14:51 S5: And then we went to another fish packaging company, same industry, but another company and I went and I asked as I was thinking like, they're gonna do exactly the same and they're like, "Yeah, we put it... We put in the truck, and it goes every week and it... " And then I asked her like, "Why not everywhere is doing the same as this fish company, the other fish company was doing" and she's like, "Well, you know, it's something that's kind of hard because sometimes they're logistically hard because sometimes you don't know who to sell it." So like since then I was just kind of thinking it will be cool. It was like so interesting that somebody have that solution for industries. So that's kind of when that when she was talking about like that and then I... It's not like I was thinking always of that, it was just something like it was in the back of my mind, and that's why I was... I always kind of like driven toward finding inefficiencies and finding something from by-products. And then I learned that there was this concept called Industrial symbiosis, and when the company put... Sorry, when the university put this, "How can we make cities better?" I was like, "Industrial symbiosis!" I know that that's it.
16:09 S5: From the concept to implementing, those are pretty different things, but I felt like that's a concept that I really, really wanna foster. As Jessica said at the beginning, we were just trying to see how can we foster this concept, how can we make something... 'cause it's quite a large concept, how we can make it into something useful and from getting to that, to starting with an industry, it does take a little bit of time especially, before that, I was not even a beer drinker. I have no idea that there was so much...
16:52 KW: Now, you're hanging out at breweries like, "Hey, you wanna give some of that barley, or you're gonna... "
16:56 S4: We get free beer.
16:57 S5: We get free beer, yeah.
17:00 KW: So, I can understand how this is an "easier sell" for the initial project, right, and you're like, "Okay, we're gonna take this food waste and we're gonna transform it to something that we can reuse" and that makes total sense. But you're a food tech start up, have you raised outside funding, have you raised money?
17:24 S5: We have raised some money.
17:25 KW: So how's that process work? Because I imagine that it's... That pitch going to get investors for them to understand the process and to really buy into it is a little bit more complex than when you were initially talking to school and you're like, "Alright, we've got this idea. Take us on and let us do this."
17:47 S4: It's very different. It is very different and as we are... It's a process that as you go, you learn. And it has been with different kind of investors is different kind of reactions and what they're looking for. So it has been very challenging and trying to present something that they are interested. We love the concept of the sustainability part, but for some investors, it's the bottom line. I think it's a nice story, but where is my return? And at the moment, we are small capacity so we can show them that the potential of what we can become, but not the revenue that they're looking for. So it is a little bit of a struggle also, because yes, we don't come from the food industry and we're presenting is more like a mechanical process, is a pattern that we have, and some other investors like, "Oh, but you don't have the experience." So it has been... Our pitch has to be tailored to every specific investors and try to understand what is that they're looking for. So it has presented different challenge, not only for the business also because, yes, maybe we don't have the many years of experience and we don't come from the food tech per se and also because we're women, too.
19:11 S4: And so it's also that, it's like, "Yeah, but... " You know, at the very beginning when it was the more of the marketplace, we're still looking for the hauling and all the waste management, and we have... We were participating on this pitch, and we didn't pass to their round. And we always wondered why was that? And years later, we found some of the people who was in the advisory team and she told us, "You know what they said about that that you know waste management is not something for women focus so... "
19:46 KW: Oh, wow.
19:47 S5: That was one of the reason that we were not selected for the next round. So I guess it depends. We have encountered, as I mentioned, very various challenge. And it depends either, it's just they care about the money, they care about years of experience, they care if you are a women or not.
20:07 KW: Yeah. I've heard all of that before, unfortunately, but I am inspired by you because I believe you will change that. You are changing that. And that does become tricky, right? When we are creating businesses that have a social impact, environmental impact, today there's a lot of discourse in business around people over profits or how do we create businesses that have a more positive impact on our world? We were talking before the podcast started about the B Corp community and Ellevate's B Corp as well as Ben & Jerry's and Worie Parker and Patagonian and a lot of these companies that are looking at their supply chain. For those of our listeners that may not understand, may not have heard that term supply chain before, it's everything from how are you sourcing all of your products to where does the cotton come from, the thread, what is the environmental impact of creating those products? If you're talking about the machines you use and the diesel, what is the waste that's produced, how are you shipping it? There's so many touch points along the way.
21:20 KW: And traditionally, it's been hard to make rapid movement in some of these areas of supply chain to create better processes, less environmental or societal impact or re-using some of that waste to get rid of it. And so that story you were talking about, Bertha, about how the one fish store, the fish production plant is able to sell their product elsewhere and one isn't, I mean part of that is if it's not a business priority and you don't have the time or the resources to figure out what to do with that product then you don't do anything. But if you, through Rise products, Bertha and Jessica, are creating easy ways for companies to solve that problem and the technology that's gonna support that and scale around that then the impact of what you are doing, the economic implications of your business and the growth of your business, to me, seemed very evident. So let's get the investors behind that, so they understand that, too. What are the other implications? So you talked about barley, but how else can this be used?
22:30 S5: Well. Yeah, so barley's like our first crop and we're focusing on barley for a few since, one, the globally water is like the first beverage.
22:45 KW: Plain water?
22:46 S5: And then there's tea and coffee. But the third one is beer. So there's a lot of beer around the world. And when we think about nutrition, I always hear Barley but I never have... It's not a grain that I grew up with. Except in one soup that my mom used to make me to eat. But it's so nutritious. When we're making all these nutrition analysis, when we compare it to normal flour, like the all purpose flour, proteins is double, fiber is 12 times, carbohydrates is one-third. So it has like so much potential. But another thing that we have put is a lot of efforts on texture and taste. Because if I don't give you something that tastes good, it doesn't matter what is behind it, you're not gonna have it. Like the majority people don't have it. So that's why we put so much emphasis on this because this creates us a baseline for us also like to start working with the other by-products.
24:00 KW: Jessica, you mentioned that you're both immigrants and that you hire a lot of your staff are immigrants as well, and that's a really powerful... I mean you're women, you're immigrants, you are women in technology. I mean, right there, unfortunately there's a lot of social commentary about that today and just about the opportunities or obstacles that you face due to where you were born, the color of your skin or your gender, your background, and we've talked about some of those systemic biases that you've experienced on this podcast so far. And so, I applaud you. I'm saying how amazing it is that you are pushing back on all of those and doing phenomenal things. But advice for others that may be facing overt or maybe not so obvious biases in their own experiences? And Maricella, my co-host on the podcast, talks about this a lot. She's from El Salvador. And so for her, the experience of where she grew up in that society is it's different than the United States, the woman's place in El Salvador, but also she never saw herself as a woman of color until she came to the United States because when she grew up in El Salvador she was like everybody else. So it's this identity shift and oftentimes, in a way, that can throw you off. So how have you overcome that? But then, advice for others that may be facing similar biases.
25:49 S4: I think that is something that you build with every day. Even you have been living in the United States for many years. I did came not knowing English and I went to ESL classes and I have a lot of fears of my... Do they understand me what I'm saying? Being afraid of not being at home. A strange place and what people are gonna say if they don't understand me or just... There were a lot of fears of overcoming that. Perhaps, right now, I'm in a better position. So I guess I am very mindful from where I came from. And if I have someone that I can help, and is in my way, I am happy to do that. And even just interacting with people, I think sometimes people begin to understand anyone, and they don't try to be sympathetic. Just do an effort and listen to that person. Maybe be more attentive of what they're trying to say and then you will get it. I think we need a little more compassion, a little more of trying to put ourselves in the other side. And that's something that you could do every day in every single opportunity. And if you can help someone, why not?
27:13 KW: Yeah, thank you so much for saying that. I'm really excited about what you've been doing. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today on The Ellevate Podcast. And for our listeners who may... You cannot see where we are right now, but I have next to me a fantastic brownie that was baked with RISE super flour. So exactly what we've been talking about today in that process. Got a lovely brownie here that I will be eating as soon as we're done. So lots of great stuff coming out of RISE, and thank you for sharing your story with us today.
27:46 S5: Thank you so much.
27:47 S4: Thank you so much.
27:50 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.
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