Sumit Kadakia: New Haven start-up turns waste into food
Editor's note: The following story first appeared in the New Haven Independent.
Olive pits, grape skin, almond meal.
Historically, those waste products — and the billions of pounds of other unappetizing refuse left behind during the food production process every year — have gone straight from the factory to the dump.
Now a New Haven-based start-up is turning that waste into nutritious, tasty, and environmentally sustainable food.
The start-up — called Renewal Mill, and co-founded by husband-and-wife team Sumit Kadakia and Claire Schlemme — has already hit the streets: Katalina’s on Whitney Avenue and Whole G Bakery in Branford sell scones made with the company’s signature “okara flour,” a specialty blend containing the pulp left behind when cooked soy beans are turned into milk.
In July, Renewal Mill, which has received support and funding from Yale’s Entrepreneurial Institute, won first prize at a business competition hosted by Yale and NYU.
Schlemme and Kadakia, both in their early 30s, discussed their vision for Renewal Mill at a makeshift office set up across a countertop in the Coffee Pedaler in East Rock. They were reluctant to speculate on plans for future products. At the moment, they said, they are “laser-focused” on marketing okara flour. The flour tastes sweeter and milkier than traditional flour but includes additional nutrients. Their ultimate aim is to convince a wholesale bread-making company to adopt their product.
According to Schlemme, baking an okara scone — which costs 25 cents more than white-flour scones at Katalina’s — is a simple matter of substituting one type of flour for another. It requires more labor, however, to mix the okara blend into products like baguettes, which are heavily reliant on the gluten structures that hold bread together.
Still, she said, “It’s just an optimal time to be doing this project. People care a lot about where their food is coming from.”
“These fibrous waste products are just very nutritious food products that are just waiting to be utilized,” she added.
Schlemme and Kadakia met in the late 2000s, when they both spent a summer working on a renewable-energy start-up in India. At the time, Schlemme was a student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. A couple years after she graduated, Kadakia also enrolled at Yale. Given their history, it made sense, they said, to base the company in New Haven.
“It doesn’t have the entrepreneurial reputation of other cities like Silicon Valley or even New York or Boston,” Kadakia said. “It’s a hidden gem.”
In New Haven, Schlemme said, a young company can build its reputation quickly — and still benefit from the business resources in nearby hubs like New York or Boston.
“It’s big enough that you can really form valuable partnerships, but small enough that you can be a vital part of the community right away,” she said.
“The only thing that we’ve faced is that ‘food byproduct’ is better than the word ‘waste,’” she added, laughing.
Schlemme — who grew up in northern California, where she was a frequent visitor to the local redwood forests — always expected her business career to trace back to her roots as an environmentally conscious adolescent.
“When you make your social or environmental mission inextricably linked to a way that you’re making money, that’s exactly what you want to be doing,” she said. “You’re getting all the benefits at once.”
Kadakia, a West Virginia native who wore a backwards baseball cap over his thick black hair, took a much different route to the sustainable food business he now spearheads. He calls himself a “reformed cold-hearted capitalist” who became interested in environmental work after a stint at the McKinsey consulting company, where he worked on sustainability issues.
Kadakia and Schlemme said they hope Renewal Mill will come to epitomize “social entrepreneurship”: the pursuit of money-making ideas that also leave a positive legacy in the community.
“For us, it’s not really a separate class of entrepreneurship,” Kadakia said. “Companies that stand the test of time are ones that take all the stakeholders into account.”