The environmental and financial impact of food waste inspired recent Trinity College graduate Rian McDonnell into starting a waste analytics company in his adopted home of South Bend, Indiana.

Originally from Dundalk, McDonnell left Trinity in 2019 with a first-class degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering and a first-class masters in engineering. He developed his idea of creating a food analytics company as part of TCD’s Launchbox accelerator programme.

But his idea got off the ground in the United States, while completing a masters in science and entrepreneurship at the prestigious Notre Dame university, also in South Bend.

“I was very lucky to get a part-scholarship for the masters at Notre Dame, as normal tuition would cost around €55,000 per year plus rent. So you’re not looking at much loose change from €100,000.”

While completing his masters, the entrepreneur founded FloWaste, which uses 3D imaging and analytics to find out how much fast food kitchens are wasting.

“We attach a camera to the bins of fast food restaurant kitchens and gather information in order to save not just the environment, but also unnecessary costs.

“The amount of food that gets wasted is shocking. In the US alone, almost 40 per cent of food gets wasted. The greenhouse gases emitted from food waste are six times worse than the entire CO2 gases emitted from aviation. The aviation industry is often seen as the worst offender, but food is so much worse.

“FloWaste is easy to install and not intrusive. It’s like Big Brother, for trash,” he says. “What appeals to business owners about FloWaste is that it can affect their bottom line.

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“Much as climate change is important to business owners, saving money, especially in the hospitality sector since Covid-19 is paramount.”

McDonnell says the company gathers the data, measures the volume of food that goes into the bin, then see how much is wasted, while everyone in the kitchen can go about their day without being imposed upon.

“When we have the data, we can start proposing changes to management. Our aim is for businesses owners to see it as an environmental and ethical issue with a technical solution.”

In the US, size matters and McDonnell says the company is not suggesting that portions be decreased. “In the US, the size of portions equates to value for money. There’s also a cultural issue around large portions, which we won’t address at this point.”

He says he is in talks with big fast food restaurant chains across the US to install FloWaste. Since starting up in 2020, two key team members have been recruited and thus far this year €250,000 has been raised from venture capitalists and angel investors.

The company has also been nominated for Startup of the Year at the 2021 Mira Awards, which award the best tech company in Indiana.

Of his success at a young age, McDonnell says hard work, trial and error have brought him to where he is. “Obviously it takes a lot of hard work, but the masters course certainly helped me a lot in how to get ahead and who to talk to and how to go to the market.”

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His extensive academic accolades, which also include an academic year spent at UC Berkeley in California, working on vehicle control and dynamics with the goal of producing an autonomous car, have enabled McDonnell to receive an EB-1 visa, which is also known as an Einstein visa, reserved for immigrants with extraordinary ability.

During his time at Berkeley, he also worked in academic research for the Laser Thermal Laboratory, primarily focused on the manipulation of 2D materials.

Since landing in Indiana in 2019, he has also founded DeLive, which enables AEDs (automated external defibrillators) to be delivered via drones.

“They are dispatched with existing ambulance services. This allows for quicker treatment of cardiac arrest victims raising survival rates from the existing 10 per cent to 23 per cent. With drones positioned throughout metropolitan areas, a blanket of coverage can be achieved, meaning an AED can be delivered anywhere within the crucial five-minute window of cardiac arrest.”

Living in the US, he says this past year has not been as restrictive as back home. South Bend’s nearest big city is Chicago, which has been operating similar to level three in Ireland for the best part of the year.

“Bars are open, outdoor dining occurs, It’s been pretty steady for the last 12 months or so. Luckily in the US, the vaccination programme is well under way and thankfully they are vaccinating people quickly.”

Like many things, the virus has also had its upsides he says. “Rents came down here too. My estimation is that the price of a two bed in parts of Chicago dropped around $400 per month.

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“Obviously it depends on where you are but, across the board, even here in Indiana, rent prices went down. I’m not sure it will stay that way when it’s all over though.”

In terms of life in the US, McDonnell enjoys living in a country so open to entrepreneurship and is looking forward to things opening up in the summer.

“Like everyone else, I can’t wait to get it over with and for our company to grow as the country opens up fully.”

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