When Paran Sonthalia arrived at UC Berkeley as a freshman in the fall of 2018, one of the first things he noticed was the prevalence of food waste in the dining halls. The Mountain View High School graduate said he was “shocked” to find people throwing away entire plates of food.
Realizing this was a problem beyond Berkeley’s campus, Sonthalia began thinking of ways to address it.
Now he is the CEO and co-founder of DeWaste, a startup that uses machine learning to reduce food waste in college and corporate dining halls. Along with his co-founders – fellow Cal junior Pranshu Bansal and UCLA junior and Mountain View High grad Daniel Ciao – Sonthalia built a system that automatically takes photos to track food waste and then analyzes the data to determine which items are being thrown out most often. DeWaste shares its findings with companies, colleges and restaurants.
The programming for the system was born out of a project Sonthalia and Bansal created at CalHacks in November 2018. After the event, they continued to improve the software, eventually launching a pilot at one of UC Berkeley’s dining halls in December 2018. The group organized two more test runs – at UC Riverside and UC Davis last August – and Sonthalia said since then, approximately 2,000 other universities have requested access to the program. Both UC
Riverside and UC Davis have delayed full implementation due to COVID-19 related closures.
The process has not always been straightforward – or without difficulties, according to Sonthalia.
“At the start, a big challenge was that we were approaching the problem from the wrong angle,” he said. “We kind of got obsessed with the solution and not the actual problem. We had to refocus on the problem and what we could do to solve it.”
Having close friends as his business partners made challenges easier to overcome, Sonthalia added, and Ciao said working together was already “pretty natural.”
“I think that’s honestly been one of the best parts of it,” Sonthalia said. “One thing that’s just really important is that you want to pick co-founders who are your friends or people you know well. All of us really lucked out because we’re also really close.”
Ciao noted that he joined the team for the same reasons Sonthalia started DeWaste.
“I try to clean my plate every time, but when I went to the return-tray area, I saw so much food being wasted,” he said. “It was kind of disheartening.”
In addition to focusing on food waste in the dining hall, the company created DeWaste Kitchen, which uses the same technology to reduce food waste in restaurant and college kitchens. The algorithm tracks what part of a food is wasted and recommends recipes that use that item. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the launch of the product has been delayed.
Moreover, the company has been looking to reduce food waste during the COVID crisis by creating the DeWaste Network, an online forum that directly connects sellers and buyers in the same area to reduce the amount of waste farmers are creating during times of low demand.
This summer, the company has taken on interns like Dylan Pham, a 2020 Mountain View High graduate. Pham said the experience has been rewarding and he’s been able to creatively apply what he’s learned in class in real life – something Ciao and Sonthalia also cite as one of their favorite parts of their work.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for technology,” Ciao said. “The technology is all out there, it just needs to be put into a form where it can be used by a lot of people.”
For more information on DeWaste, visit de-waste.com.