Episode 419 - Todd Westra / Tinia Pina

00:24 Hey, welcome back to the show. And I am so excited today because this is one of those awesome entrepreneurs who start something that is sustainable, it's cool, it's technical. Tinia, will you please tell us who you are and what problem are you setting out to solve with your company?

00:43 First, thanks for having us on here, me on here, Todd. My name is Tinia Pina and I'm the founder and CEO of Renewable. We're based or headquartered in New York City and what we do is we focus on different types of waste streams along the food supply chain. We take unrecoverable vegetative waste, we also take crop residues, and we turn it into a platform of sustainable technologies, ultimately inputs, for those that grow our food. So it can be commercial farms and it can also be consumers that have a green thumb want to garden and have more control of how their food's grown. My background? I don't know if you want me to go into the background.

01:16 Yeah, do, please, yeah, yeah.

01:20 Okay. So my background is, you know, I majored in IT from Virginia Tech and really was just having this kind of personal passion for what I was starting to see when I was just, I'm a really, like just a very fast reader and I love to just witness what's happening around the world. And so at that time in 2012, you know, we were witnessing how New York City was spending roughly export food waste because we don't have the infrastructure here and still don't really. 

01:52 Are you serious?

01:53 Yeah, just in terms of management of organic waste streams. So that then kind of inspired me based on how much waste was being consumed and the lack of infrastructure to handle it. And what I was also seeing as a pro bono at prep SAT teacher at Thurgood Marshall was a volunteer program management course that I did on Saturdays with kids from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. my goal was to help them be as prepared for their SATs as possible. But at the end of the day, and I don't know if you witnessed the same, at the end of the day, really depending on the type of food that you're nourishing yourself with is going to give you the impacts for productivity, your retention, how well you're doing. So if we could combine two challenges, lack of nutritional food, especially in urban areas and the lack of infrastructure to handle food waste and combine that to turn it into benefits, just like we do for open field or soil agriculture, turning into compost, I wanted to make more nutritionally dense food produced in indoor farms, even though it's applicable to outdoor, so that we could see more urban areas and more densely populated areas have a year round way of growing without some of the challenges we're seeing today.

03:16 Cool. So you're taking the waste, you're somehow recomposting somehow into some product that then is like super enriched soil, or walk me through this a little bit. I want to understand this, this is cool.

03:29 Yeah, so composting is a great phrase to just associate, right? But it's a little bit more specific because it took us like seven to seven and a half years to get it right. 

03:42 Alright, walk me through this, because this is sounding really cool.

03:44 Yeah, so with hydroponic or soilless growing, it's really hard to take something that's naturally derived. So let's say, you know, a banana peels lettuce, anything from last night's dinner. You put it in a five gallon bucket. You let it decompose, put maybe a bubble or some water and let it decompose and do its natural thing. You can't really apply that same use. Take that, the water from the five gallon bucket we just described and put it in a hydroponic system because the bacteria is gonna wanna, it's gonna be like Chuck E. Cheese. It's gonna want to go for the light, eat sugar and just really compromise what you want to keep as a very sterile food production system. So,

04:26 Interesting, okay?

04:28 We make the compost essentially a very standardized, a clean way to grow without introducing bacteria that can cause food pathogens and other risks while growing. And the reason why that's important is because it's easier to do compost for soil. It's incredibly hard to do compost for hydroponic or soilless system. That's one product type. The second is the crop residues such as jude and we use other types of materials to basically serve as a peat-free solution for alternatives to soil. So the reason why that's important is globally that there is a push to find alternatives to peat because peat is a huge carbon sink and the more we're harvesting or removing those bogs, the less of our ability to sink carbon and sequester things that we're really not trying to admit into the air. So hopefully that kind of clarifies.

05:28 Yeah, I mean, it definitely clarifies. I would say I'm probably 80% following here, but that's okay, because I am not the smartest agricultural guy. Definitely, I do have a bit of a green thumb. My wife's a big gardener, and so I do, I am familiar with a lot of these things, but this is really, really cool stuff. So are you finding your way into, you talked about inner city and repurposing inside of the city. I know you're New York area. Is that right? 

05:59 That's correct, yep.

06:00 Okay. So, so I had a guy on the show probably six months ago who was talking to me about a very similar problem to what you're addressing. He did it different. I don't know if he's doing it differently. Maybe he's doing it with you. I don't even know. But like he was doing some kind of repurposing inside these cities where he was buying up old warehouses and old buildings and literally building, um, giant garden box type structures inside these units. Is that kind of where you're going with this?

06:32 Interesting. I may or may not know this individual, but there's a couple of different models. Some people are taking waste from specifically hospitality, like restaurants and hotels, and they're turning that into a dehydrated form of food waste, or they're taking it and turning it into blocks to serve as the substrate for mushrooms to grow from. We're not approaching it with the perspective of basically putting this process inside as many small warehouses. Instead, our facility, even though we're headquartered in New York City, our facility's in Rochester, and it was easier to place manufacturing because the agriculture economy is much larger up there, a lot of manufacturing expertise. So we see ourselves basically having a distributed manufacturing model, but having satellite facilities beyond New York, 

07:27 Gotcha, gotcha.

07:28 and those states being California, Florida, Texas, and beyond.

07:32 For sure, for sure, all the big metros. So as you do this, what is your, I guess, what is your business model? I mean, talk to me about how does this generate revenue and how do you, who's your avatar? Like, who are you trying to serve and what are they actually buying from you? Walk us through the tech or the systems that you're selling.

07:53 Yeah, good point. So our platform consists of three types of offerings. I mentioned taking food waste or unrecoverable food waste and turning that into nutrients so that soilless and hydroponic as our first beachhead market, the indoor growers can grow food using that fertilizer, ultimately as a replacement to mineral salts. That's one.Two is the Renutera. This is the grow media that people are using as alternatives to soil or peat, and it comes in multiple form factors. And you can use it, just like with our fertilizer, for all crop types. The third offering, and this is validated and being supported by a contract with the USDA, is to help farms, largely open field or soil farms, take their waste streams and turn it into products that can reduce their input costs. So really showing a circular business model. That has been something that you'll see more information about in 2024. So our expertise is really taking waste streams, predominantly organic or only organic, and turning it into consumables for growing food. And what's proprietary and what our business model is, is the scalability of producing, you know, X product from X waste stream. Our expertise can work with multiple types of waste streams. So oftentimes who we sell to, it's made of like three consumer, not consumer, customer segments. It's B to B to C. So you have like, for example, The Scotts miracle grows the farm stands that have an indoor garden system They would buy our grow media and the fertilizer in some cases to sell to their consumers We also sell to resellers that sell

09:52 Cool. And they white label this somehow, or is it kind of a white label deal, or is it just direct through you?

09:58 Good question. Sometimes there's the interest in white labeling. Sometimes the, most of the times I should say, it's often co-branded.

10:07 Cool, cool.

10:08 Yeah. And then the last group is the B2B, which is purely us selling to commercial farms. So the great thing about our business model is, you know, we can be versatile based on the waste, which gives us the flexibility to develop different types of products. So there's always a continuous loop of innovation. The challenging thing has always been is really staying focused and making sure that what we're innovating on are iterating is serving the larger market, because especially when working with, I think in this field, like controlled environment agriculture, there's a lot of innovation. And so we're seeing systems evolve and change, which can sometimes impact how we're designing our products for.10:55 www.captainscouncil.com

12:24 Sure, sure. Yeah, no doubt about it. I mean, this is fascinating because you really are dealing with so many different ends of the product. You've got the raw stuff that you're taking, the excess, the waste, and you're turning that into, so I'm assuming you have some type of process through which you manufacture, get it into a repurposed product that then they buy or co-brand or whatever with you. And then you also have direct distribution to consumer.Is that right? Is that my following you kind of on the three product types or client types there?

12:58  You're spot on except for we don't do direct to consumer. We do B2B2C, so through channel partnerships.

13:06 Cool, cool, cool. All right, very cool. Okay, well that's fascinating. This is not like most normal shows that I have on here. This is a really cool process. And tell me why, why did you want to go out and solve this? I mean, this sounds like a big problem to solve. It's obvious. This other guest I had on, the number I have floating around in my head, you can validate this for me. He was saying something like 45% of all prepared food is goes to waste or maybe it's higher? I can't remember exactly. There's a lot of waste we're giving out.

13:39 Yeah, I think. Yeah, you're absolutely right. So it did start off with the waste problem, but then it really evolved. And in the most like the last two years for us, at least, it really evolved for us to want to develop the second product offering the Renew Terra, which is the fibers, because of the peat free needs. And so why there's so much kind of macroeconomic tail when supporting that is globally there's regulations forcing the industry, commercial horticulture industry, to transition from peat. And supermarkets are even wanting to kind of pull in produce suppliers that are transitioning from peat. So there's, yeah, so there's that aspect. And then also the, you know, it's always been around the fact that the produce market in the U.S. is roughly $144 billion the indoor gardener or consumer market is now roughly $14 billion. So why not serve the same product need and use case, but for two different customer types that ultimately we see growth opportunity for.

14:55 I love it. All right, very cool model. Tell us now about the business. I feel like I'm kind of understanding who you're servicing and your model and all that kind of good stuff. Talk to us about your, you've been doing this now for over a decade? Around a decade, somewhere there?

15:14 Not yet, not yet. So I appreciate that. We were in R&D for roughly seven years, almost seven and a half years for R&D. That was on the first product. And then we just constantly iterating or refining the formula. In the last year and a half, we developed the Renew Terra product, the fiber, and that really is a sales volume leader for us. So still today, we're venture backed. We've raised 9.2 million. A lot less than half is actually dilutive. So we've done an incredible job raising on grants as well because of the priorities we are relevant to. But yeah, I mean, we're not where next year is when we'll be profitable. Really, we needed, 

16:01 Congrats.

16:02 Thank you, we've needed to diversify two products so that we can sell them together, often bundled, and they're serving the same market anyways.

16:14 Fantastic, fantastic. I would imagine you have a lot of very interested investors just for the sake of what you're doing, your mission and how you're doing it. I mean, you could almost do part of what you're doing as a nonprofit considering what you're doing to kind of repurpose all that waste. I mean, it's gotta get a lot of people interested in investing what you're up to.

16:39 The interest is, so appreciate that. The interest definitely hasn't waned. I think agriculture is not the easiest sector to go out to market. And then I think we've been very fortunate to have the investors that we do because they've been patient and they've been focused on impact. If we did not, manufacturing to have the initial capex for that, especially raising venture backed, it's not for everyone. So we, It's not that we've spent not even more than $400,000 on capex. And not to say that that's not a lot of money, but it takes certain types of investors that are willing to invest in manufacturing.

17:20 Gotcha. You know, you're right, it totally does. But when they see the vision of what you're doing and how you're doing it, I think it's a very, very cool story to tell. So as you've told the story, and as you've grown the story, talk to us about some of the early decisions that you made that kind of helped solidify the model and make that an easier investment and an easier sell to your clients.

17:46 Yeah, great question. And I would include investors within the same category as clients. So to our investors, we proved out the first product was the nutrients. And then I think what gave them the comfort of either reinvesting or following on and attracting new investors is because of the Renew Terra. And the fact that this benefited us in three ways, larger market size, regulatory problem that's giving positive tailwinds to push more growth opportunity. And then three, easier product to sell, much cheaper to ship and just easier product to scale because there's multiple form factors. So that certainly kind of re-upped on the confidence. In terms of our customers, really, they come to us and a lot of our growth has been organic. We haven't spent any money on paid ads. They come to us for three things. They like what we're doing and how we've kind of developed this thought leadership and category around it, creating a platform sustainability that they're not seeing from other brands or just haven't been done. Two is we really try to at least, you know, have as many conversations to show that we can be, we can offer, offer customization, or if they want to put feedback into what can be developed, we have that open feedback loop and then two is a lot of their customers are very, and their customers being retailers like Whole Foods or wholesale produce distributors or direct to consumers. They want to know that they're leading with sustainability. So often what we're seeing in the produce market or food producer market is that they, everyone's kind of beating their chest on sustainability, who's being the best steward. And so that's our bread and butter is we've set up this so that we can try to push the needle in the industry on sustainability and the transparency of it.

19:48 Cool, I think it's super cool. I actually got a couple of people in mind who would be very interested in jumping on your raise. So I don't know if you're raising again anytime soon, but again, I'm just thinking in my head, some people that I know would align with you and your values and all that kind of stuff. So we'll follow up after this chat, but as we talk about the growth, I mean, that's definitely some very cool iterations of your product and very smart moves in terms of getting more product out faster, quicker, you'd probably easier to produce the tariff product and some of the other mineral, the other extraction things you're doing and things like that. But talk to us about some of the mistakes you've made. I mean, everyone makes mistakes in trying to grow and scale their business. What are some things that you wish you hadn't run into or maybe some lessons that you learned that have now made your product better because you did make those mistakes?

20:42 Great question. And you know, for us, the good thing is that our manufacturing, with the exception of a few form factors, can largely use the same production equipment. And so we were trying to do, yeah, just easy and cheaper. So we were, 

20:57 Yeah, totally repurpose what you got.

20:58 Exactly. And so we were trying to, um, do too many form factors at the same time. And what that caused is, okay, we, we were creating the nomenclature of how we were going to, reference each form factor or each variant of the product and getting You know the buy-in of okay. This is how we're gonna reference it This is how it's gonna be measured in the production side This is how we're going to measure its efficacy on the product development side and testing side And then lastly is the customer going to understand how we're referencing the product So we started off trying to do three form factors at once and then we dialed it back because we had a $3,500 mistake where we didn't have the kind of the technical specs of one form factor dialed in. And we produced the wrong, we produced the whole day on the wrong product. So I don't...

21:55 Oops, oops, hope you can sell that as something else a new product line. Hey check this out!

21:59 It's exactly the good thing is that we can just put it in scrap and then reuse it.

22:04 Ah, well, that's the beauty of repurposing everything, right?

22:08 Right, right. 

22:11 Renewable mistakes.

22:13 You're not wrong. So that was an example of one. And I would say the second thing is getting comfort of everyone on the team that here's, you know, you know how it is with companies that are startups or need to act like being a startup, where you have to just as a turtle, like peek your head above, beyond your shell a little bit and be comfortable with that vulnerability. Because especially when selling to farms, you know, some farms don't start their trial on time or they don't tell you the exact scope that they're going to test it in. All the things that are outside of your control, you need to have a larger sample size. And I think there were some people that just weren't comfortable with that and not having a perfect product upfront. And we had all the proof points to show the product works, people are going to like it, we just need to get as many, you know, 

23:08 Use cases. 

23:09 Yes, yes.

23:10 Yeah. No, I hear you. That is always a game and it's always that chicken and egg thing. And it's a tricky game for every company that's trying to get out of a product development phase and into implementation. And it sounds like you've done really, really well for yourself though. And showing that you're going to be profitable next year is a great sign. And that's really, really exciting. Talk to us about almost everyone I've talked to who's gone through the build out that you've gone through, they've got somebody, there's somebody that's kind of in their corner, a mentor or someone who's kind of guided them through some of the mistakes you've made. There's somebody like to give a shoutout today on the show that has kind of been there for you in that way.

23:54 Yeah, I would say, you know, there's two investors of ours that have been in that corner. I would say it's the WalkStar Fund. So Gayla, she's one of the main managing partners, and then also Tracy Gray and her team at the 22 Fund. I mean, I just like we were talking before the show, just knowing that they understand the struggles of operating, especially within agriculture and manufacturing, it's always really helpful.

24:22 Right. Interesting. I love it. This is really, really cool. I wish you the best. I cannot wait to see how this thing grows. And I'm very interested in talking after the show about some contacts. I think it would benefit you a great deal. So, Tania, fantastic. I appreciate taking the time to be on here today. And is there anything else you'd like to let people know about what you're doing and how it's working?

24:46 Thanks, Todd. First of all, thank you for having us on here. And I would say, given how much more our produce is costing, our food in general, I encourage everyone to at least start something small to try growing their own food, because it's that confidence. And if you are buying direct for farms or have that just awareness in your supermarkets, really keep your producers accountable to how they're growing food, because it really does matter, and they're gonna grow their food based on how you want it. So put that pressure if you believe in that.

25:22 Love it, love it. Hey, we've got our garden. It's good stuff. Hey, thanks so much, Tinia. Appreciate you and your time and your mission. And for those listening, check it out. Tinia, I'm assuming your B2B2C contacts, you're gonna give us something to throw down below so people can go buy some of your product.

25:40 Yeah, sounds good. I can definitely do that.

25:44 Please, please, please do. Awesome. Thanks again, and we'll catch up with the rest of you on the next episode. Thanks, Tania.

25:50 Anytime Todd, thank you.

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