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NETZRO: A Conversation With Founder Sue Marshall

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“Food upcycling is pretty sexy”, according to Minnesota-based entrepreneur, Sue Marshall, founder of NetZero, a company dedicated to reducing food waste.   Given the resources and embodied energy that goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food, reducing food waste is one of the most impactful ways to combat climate change. 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind...Right?

It’s undeniable — the primary ways our food is grown and processed are unsustainable. As you can imagine, the agriculture and food production industries use substantial amounts of resources (time, energy, land, and water to name a few), and inefficiencies throughout the supply chain translate to adverse impacts on human health and the environment. Considering everything that goes into making food you would think it would be treated valuably, but that is not the case. As of 2018, it’s estimated that 40% of America’s food ends up in a landfill where it sits and releases greenhouse gases notoriously perpetuating global warming. Moreover, often what is considered food waste is still edible or contains valuable nutrients, a tragic irony considering the vast amounts of hunger worldwide. It is this contradiction that Sue and the NETZRO team aim to address. Using their proprietary technology and licensing platform, they’re transforming our traditional characterization of waste into a landscape of innovation and opportunity.

New Life: For Sue and Food

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A NETZRO customer reharvesting upcycled spent grain to make flavored almonds.

Sue Marshall is a vibrant entrepreneur who gets bored easily. After mastering the real estate world and raising two kids, Sue went back to school to finish her graduate degree, with the intention of doing good in the world this time around when starting a company. Growing up in Minnesota in a family of farmers, she’s always been interested in the land and resource use. After running into a friend who was recovering animal manure, a light switched on for Marshall.  Though she didn’t want to focus on animal waste, she had the idea to apply similar technology to food waste.  From there, with the support of universities, scientists, and her family, Sue was whisked into a two and a half year R&D process to develop NETZRO and its technology. “People, who know me from previous businesses are like ‘What? How’d you end up with that?’, but if you knew how I grew up it all makes sense. It was a calling home,” Marshall said.

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Recovered Calcium and Collagen

The Three R's of Food Upcycling

Working with large and small-scale businesses across the country, NETZRO uses proprietary technology for reducing, recovering and reharvesting food byproducts into safe, nutritious, and versatile upcycled ingredients that are good for the planet and consumers. NETZRO’s mission is organized under a structure of these three R’s: Reduce, Recover, and Reharvest. As a consumer, it’s easy to visualize food upcycling simplistically, narrowing our perception to what it is and can be. NETZRO isn’t taking fruit scraps and making them into gummies- it’s not that easy. Rather, NETZRO operates a platform that transforms industrial food byproducts into sustainable ingredients. Through a holistic process the company uses its 3 R framework to upcycle food waste, benefiting consumers, companies,  and the environment.

Reduce. The first step when managing food waste is to find ways to limit it. Though NETZRO functions on the premise of food waste existing, the most cost-effective strategy is to avoid creating it in the first place.  If communities and food manufactures can be more thoughtful in how they handle food, much of what is wasted could be prevented or donated. In advocating for such, NETZRO offers materials and assistance to any groups or individuals looking to improve upon their food production practices and waste management.

Recover.  Recovery is the meat and potatoes of NETZRO’s technology, you could say. Even when taking steps to reduce food waste, there are still immense volumes of byproducts that need to be dealt with. By licensing NETZRO’s platform, businesses and food manufacturers can extract valuable nutrients (such as proteins, collagen, fibers) and recover them as shelf-stable, food-safe, concentrated ingredients. NETZRO’s platform currently recovers nutrients from eggshells, grains, and fruit and veggie scraps. The extracted nutrients can then be used as upcycled ingredients. In the future, NETZRO will license its platform to processors looking to upcycle their mixed food waste in addition to single byproduct streams. Though it cannot be converted into food-safe ingredients, mixed food waste can be made into soil amendments that improve soil health and improve agriculture output. NETZRO hopes to develop its technology to be able to recover wastewater which often contains significant nutrients. Not only could those nutrients be extracted, but the water could be recycled, “We know we have to do something better with how we use water…I hope NETZRO can be a part of that”, Marshall said.

Reharvest. In the final R, ingredients that have been recovered are given new life by being transformed into new products to be bought and enjoyed by consumers. In making ingredients available through the recovery process the sky’s the limit as to how companies utilize them. From pancake mixes using upcycled spent grain to the production of bioplastics, there are countless products that can be made with upcycled ingredients. “Who would’ve known”, Sue raised her eyebrows gleefully.

A Win Win Win

But what do companies have to gain by licensing the NETZRO platform? 

There are quite a few things. Firstly, the space and resources consumed by food production waste are costly to manufacturers. However, through NETZRO’s technology companies no longer have to pay thousands of dollars a month to dispose of their food waste. Additionally, NETZERO markets the byproducts for upcycling, and it shares revenues with the licensee, which can cover their customer’s return on investment for the NETZRO licensing fee, making the relationship mutually beneficial to both parties.

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NETZRO’s first calcium sale, all packaged up and ready to be reharvested!

That being said, NETZRO’s platform carries with it more than financial merit; It ignites a story, one of sustainability, collaboration, and innovation. The platform fosters partnerships, NETZRO being the bridge in which businesses leverage off one another. Additionally, by reducing their waste or using upcycled ingredients, value is added to the companies (and their products) at both ends of the partnership. With climate change a more pressing issue, consumers value businesses with sustainability as a priority, and NETZRO provides companies with tangible means to be more sustainable. Hence everybody wins, the companies that generate food wastes, the re-use markets, and NETZRO as the link between them.

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Sue and the NETZRO team

Collaboration as a Key

Collaboration is vital to NETZRO’s success, even beyond its direct business relationships. Working with others in the upcycling industry, Sue was one of eight founders of The Upcycled Food Association, which now has almost 200 members. The group of eight kept running into each other, and one night over a networking happy hour they decided to start a trade association. “Be careful what you say over happy hour!”, she teased. The association has been focused on approving a certification for food products that would inform consumers when something is made with upcycled ingredients. The Upcycled certification is found in the same location on product labels as other types of certifications, such as ‘organic’, ‘fair trade’, or ‘non-GMO’, a big step for helping familiarize consumers with food upcycling and promoting brand transparency.

In addition to collaboration within the upcycling community, Sue recognizes the importance of making connections between different groups of people. As a woman, Sue has faced struggles in entrepreneurship, “Women and other types of minority business owners don’t get access to capital at the same degree white men do… that has to change”.  Diversity can become a strength of the entrepreneurial community as there are so many innovative people of diverse backgrounds forming startups, and their creativity need to be unleashed. 

Furthermore, fostering collaboration between generations is crucial. Sue spoke of the guilt she feels to be part of a generation that has left young people in a state of climate distress. She’s humbled by her interactions with young people, especially their sense of responsibility they feel for problems created by previous generations. Upon hearing this though, I realized I’m critical of my own younger generation for not caring enough about the climate crisis. I find I’m fairly nostalgic to reconcile knowledge of previous generations. This left me realizing that we’re too busy trying to establish who’s most to blame for climate change, and in doing so are building barriers between those we think to be allies and those we’ve pre-labeled to be unhelpful in furthering sustainability. However, the answers don’t lie with one group of people, but rather will continue to evolve from the knowledge culminated in cultures, generations, and individual talents.  

In the global campaign to reverse climate change, reducing food waste is a low hanging fruit, and the food upcycling movement stands ready to pick it.  The difference that Marshall is making goes beyond just reducing waste.   Her commitment to collaboration and connectedness is just the approach that is needed in fighting the global climate crisis, and so NETZERO provides a critical lesson:  collaboration is crucial in advancing sustainability and social justice overall.

Read more about Sue and NETZRO on their website , and stay up-to-date with their exciting endeavors on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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Author: Heart of Waraba

The Heart of Waraba is an online community committed to sharing the stories of sustainable entrepreneurs from around the globe. We offer inspiration, hope, and connection with one bold mission….to fiercely support sustainable entrepreneurs in their efforts to create great companies and a healthy planet.

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