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Reducing waste tops elevator competition

Jan Garrison

Edible utensils, cutting food waste


November 8, 2021

Two business concepts that would reduce waste in the food industry were selected as the winners of The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur’s Elevator Competition at Culver Academies Sunday afternoon.

Isabel Bernard ’23 (San Pedro Sula, Honduras) won the environmental/sustainability and people’s choice awards for her concept for edible silverware. Christian Tolksdorf ’23 (Skokie, Illinois) and Victor Zhang ’23 (Quingdao, China) won the general category with their concept on reducing food waste in the Lay Dining Hall.

Bernard said approximately $3 billion dollars is being spent annually on plastic utensils that are not being recycled. Her project would make the utensils out of a food paste (flour, sugar, and water) that would be enriched with vitamins and minerals. Consumers could then select the utensils based on the vitamins and minerals they wanted. The edible silverware would have a combined impact, reducing plastic waste while providing additional nutrition to consumers.

Tolksdorf and Zhang’s “Gain for Good” program would involve having students swipe their Culver identification cards at the dining hall to let the dining hall staff know how many students are eating at each meal. The students would also fill out a weekly survey about the meals being served. The information would give the dining hall staff real data on the number of people eating at each meal. It would also give students the opportunity to select their favorite meals. This data would allow the dining hall personnel to adjust the menu and how much is being cooked. This would then reduce the amount of food being thrown out.


Winner Isabel Bernard listens to judge Ellen Joyce's question.


Other presentations included a concept for treating the contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Thomas Guo ’23 (Guangzhou, China), Jed Lee ’23 (Busan, South Korea), and Leo Chen ’23 (Shanghai, China) said the contaminated water from the reactor meltdown is now being stored at the site. If not treated, its release would seriously damage the waters and fisheries in the region. Their concept is to construct a facility that utilizes positive and negative ions that would act like magnets to separate the contamination from the water.

Jake Gutwein ’22 (West Lafayette, Indiana) presented a concept to blend the growing sports betting market with social media, forming one entity that people could use for placing bets while also obtaining real-time game information.

Sean Coxhead ’24 (Palmetto Bay, Florida) said he would take the current student investment group on campus and start investing real dollars. It would be like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and would allow students to watch their dollars at work.

Students were given one minute to make their presentations to judges Ellen Joyce and Rian McDonnell, who are graduates of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and have gone through the ESTEEM program at the University of Notre Dame. Joyce and McDonnell then asked two questions of the participants on their respective projects.

The awards were based on the clarity of presentation, originality, creativity, social impact, and environmental impact. The environmental and social impact criteria are new this year.

After the program, Joyce and McDonnell sat down with students to answer questions about their startup businesses and entrepreneurship in general. Joyce is the co-founder and CEO of Digital Leader Academy, which brings Silicon Valley into the classroom by creating curriculums that educate students on emerging technology and the entrepreneurial process. Her goal is to increase the visibility of technology to women and under-represented students.

McDonnell’s startup is Flowaste, a food analytics platform that uses proprietary image recognition technology to food service providers to optimize meal preparations and portion sizing, while reducing labor costs to maximize profits and minimize excess.

Both entrepreneurs have raised more than $100,000 in investor funding for their startups.

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