A new way of dealing with food waste

A student-created sustainable waste tech startup uses AI-enabled biodigester to create fertilizer

Deniz Vermaz holding a microphone

Ph.D. candidate Deniz Vurmaz speaking at an event hosted earlier this year by NYC Media Lab Combine, an intensive, 12-week accelerator program that draws student entrepreneurs from a consortium of universities.

Deniz Vurmaz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, hopes that once the COVID-19 crisis passes and everyone returns to Brooklyn, the NYU Tandon campus will be home to a new feature — an AI-enabled biodigester that she has prototyped and foresees, pending approval from the school, installing in the garden alongside 6 MetroTech.

She developed the prototype with her team to address the problems that arise when recycling food waste, namely, the lack of a clean, efficient collection system and a transparent and affordable means of recycling. Composting, the solution open to most individuals, is time-consuming and requires more space than many people have, and any fertilizer made from composted material is of inconsistent quality. Large-scale anaerobic digester plants, such as those used in the agricultural and industrial sectors, can be noisy, odiferous, and expensive.

Their solution, which they call LostBytes, uses proprietary biodigester machinery that can be installed by university dining halls, restaurants, hotels, apartment buildings, and other such locales. (Biodigesters provide an anerobic environment in which microbes can break down organic materials.) The machinery is coupled with integrated software that collects data on the nutritional components, temperature, weight, and PH levels of the processed material, which can then be made into high-quality organic fertilizer and sold. A pound of food waste can be converted into a pound of fertilizer, cost-effectively and with few emissions.

“When you eat an apple, 100 percent of the energy is available to you,” Vurmaz explains. “Sending that apple to a landfill obviously results in no energy gains. With composting, you can reclaim about 20 percent of the energy, and that jumps all the way to 60 percent with LostBytes.”  

Along with Srikar Varadaraj of Courant, Vurmaz recently took part in the NYC Media Lab Combine, an intensive, 12-week accelerator program that draws student entrepreneurs from a consortium of universities. Awarded $10,000 in startup grant funding, participants conduct market validation and customer discovery and then, at the conclusion of the program, they demonstrate their ideas to possible investors. (This year, Demo Day for the Combine’s 2020 cohort was held virtually, via Zoom, because of the COVID-19 crisis, and as Romina DeNicola, a Media Lab manager, reminded the team members, “Innovation is critical now more than ever.”)

“This is a great program for entrepreneurs who need to understand more about moving their ideas and business model to the market,” Vurmaz says. “Most start-up owners fall in love with their ideas and fail to see things from a different perspective. During the program we formulated an initial hypothesis for each business model segment and validated them through customer interviews. Combine mentors are amazing because they do not tell you what to do, they help you realize what steps you should take to evolve your value proposition.”

And soon, everyone at Tandon might get to see the value of LostBytes for themselves, right outside 6 MetroTech.