Solving the $1.5T Food Waste Problem with IoT

(7 minute read)
Ovie Smarterware with produce
We’re solving the food waste crisis, one smarterware at a time.

Ovie’s impressively simple user experience prevents the food in your fridge from spoiling. Customers press a button and speak a dish’s name as they’re adding it to the fridge, and Ovie’s real-time notifications and recipe recommendations take care of the rest. Ovie calls its product “smarterware,” and it aims at the exorbitant (and rising) cost of food waste.

To understand their process and success thus far, we sat down with Ovie’s co-founders, Ty Thompson and Dave Joseph, between their successful Kickstarter campaign and product launch. Here’s how Ty accounts for their success:

What’s Ovie’s Mission?

A photo of the Ovie products resting on a cutting board with vegetables
Ovie’s Kickstarter campaign received 462 backers and over $64,000.

I was shocked to realize 40% of all food in America is wasted. The largest portion comes from the households, where food waste costs families up to $2K per year.

It’s not exclusively an American problem. Worldwide, humans are expected to waste 2.1B tons of food each year by 2030, costing a whopping $1.5T. Even today, food waste annually produces 3.3 gigatons of CO2, contributing a significant amount to the greenhouse effect.

From a business perspective, food waste is a large market where Ovie can have a positive impact. We don’t, however, have delusions that smarterware in one person’s home will solve this large problem. Instead, food waste will require a community solution.

For instance, Ovie is a synergistic partner for the smart fridge. Both target the same problem–inventory management of the food in your home. Ovie uses active monitoring, where an individual tags a dish. The smart fridge uses passive monitoring, which could benefit from a strategy like Ovie’s.

For consumers, the choice isn’t one or the other. Customers can buy Ovie smarterware for $200, for instance, and see the impact of the tech before spending upwards of $2K on a smart fridge.

How did Ovie go from Concept to Complete?

Ovie is a dramatically simple consumer experience. Making something simple is really, really hard. From start to finish took us two years:

1. Developing the Idea

Two moments led to the idea of Ovie.

The first was throwing away a delicious pasta dish–my family’s signature recipe of rigatoni and Italian sausage with cannellini beans. It’s a dish best served after setting in the fridge for two or three days so it can soak up the flavor. Two weeks after cooking a batch, I threw away the entire thing. My family hadn’t eaten a single bite! I got mad at myself. Why hadn’t I remembered it was in the fridge? It would have been delicious, if I had just remembered… and I would have saved money, too! I needed something to get my attention.

The second moment was a literal light bulb moment. I was doing something unrelated when an LED grabbed my attention. I thought, “What if I just slap a light on a food storage container?” In retrospect, it was an overly simplistic idea, but that basic notion started Ovie.

2. Determining What to Build

In 2017, I pulled together a team. We began diving into the details:

What does the light mean?

For consumers, simpler is better, so we chose green for “good,” yellow for “hurry up,” and red for “bad.”

How does Ovie learn what’s inside a container?

Different foods expire at different rates. It’s too much friction for a customer to type a dish’s name into their phone every time they use the fridge, so we jumped at the prospect of using voice recognition technology.

This dive into the specifics led us to a tagging system where customers don’t need a phone, an app, or specialized containers. To tag something, they simply press the button and use their voice.

3. Proving our Concept

Our first prototype was a big, ugly breadboard velcroed to the bottom of a food storage container lid. It was ugly, but that was okay because functionality was all that mattered. We began prototyping in spring of 2017, and had a proof of concept by July.

4. Ensuring the Product can Scale

Once we knew the product could work, we needed a smaller size and proper communication protocols.

We started working with Breadware in November 2017 to prove what we were building. They helped us:

  • Lower the size of the board down to our needed specs
  • Solve for electrical & mechanical engineering needs
  • Ensure the board works with its plastic and firmware components

Once we knew we could mass-produce, we were ready for launch.

5. Crowdfunding

Ovie created this video to launch their Kickstarter campaign

Crowdfunding has changed in the last five or six years. Now, if you want to raise six figures, you need some funding in place, a large marketing effort, and a nearly complete product.

The key to crowdfunding is proper expectations. We didn’t set out to raise $1M from 10,000 backers. Instead, we wanted to answer two big questions:

Are we building something people will pay for?

How do people want to buy this product?

Our funded Kickstarter implicitly answered the former. For the latter, we offered a variety of kits containing different amounts of smart tags, containers, and clips. Our results showed us what people gravitated to.

With crowdfunding, set your goals and expectations properly. Had our goal been “Raise $600K,” we would be disappointed. Massive raises are incredibly rare. Instead, it’s better to accomplish what the company actually needs.

Why make Ovie an IoT Product?

Internet connectivity makes the device drastically more complex to manufacture, but is unquestionably worth it. It makes the customer experience much more elegant and Ovie a more successful company.

A Simpler Customer Experience

Technology should make a user’s life easier. We approach every potential feature from this same perspective: “Does it make for a better customer experience?”

Ovie was initially much less tech-intensive. We realized adding IoT components creates a much more robust experience for customers, delivering much more value.

If Ovie weren’t a connected device, users would press a button that stays green for a few days, then yellow, then red. This doesn’t solve the key problems that customers have:

  • They don’t know how long a specific dish will last
  • They forget about the food in their fridge
  • They don’t know what to make with the near-expiring food

Connectivity improves every step! Our food-duration database knows how long something will last, can adjust the notifications accordingly, and suggest recipes when appropriate.

A More Successful Company

Ovie was featured in CBS’ Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca in April 2019.

If a product is too complicated, customers won’t use it. Since connectivity is beneficial to the customer experience, it also helps Ovie’s customer retention and sales.

Additionally, connectivity puts the company in a more defensible position. Anyone can make a button that turns on a light. Since Ovie is IoT, it’s harder to build. That complexity protects us against incoming competitors.

Like most IoT products, one key element for Ovie is data. When aggregated and anonymized, we can improve food distribution. Governments need additional data to run food waste-prevention programs. Distributors and grocers would like to improve their efficiency. If many smart tags on spinach in Chicago are going from yellow to red, a spinach distributor should ensure they have sufficient stock at local grocery stores. With more data, we can make better solutions. To get that data, Ovie must be IoT.

Where can Readers Learn More about Ovie?

To learn more about Ovie, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. To preorder Ovie, visit Ovie.life.

This was an interview with Ty Thompson and Dave Joseph, the co-founders of Ovie, conducted and written by Julian Wise.