U-M Grad Students Add Startup Company ReGenerate to School Duties

1/13/11

It began in 2009 as a project among University of Michigan graduate students to find alternative uses for food waste. Now it’s a company called ReGenerate Solutions, which might be one of the hottest new startups in Southeast Michigan.

ReGenerate took the top prize for the student track of December’s Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition—which was promoted as the largest business plan contest in the world—with its plan to provide organic food waste digesters for large cafeterias and supermarkets. The startup’s founders, who incorporated their venture last month, rose to the top of nearly 300 student teams that entered the competition.

But there are new challenges ahead for ReGenerate, according to co-founder Hunt Briggs, who heads business development for the startup while completing his dual MBA and master’s degree in environmental science in Ann Arbor. The group needs to complete testing of an early prototype of its digester at Michigan State University, advance development of a commercial-scale model of the system, and strengthen ties with potential customers, Briggs says.

It’s likely going to be a lot of work to shake up how facilities manage food waste. Rather than have its customers ship uneaten food to landfills, ReGenerate wants them to put certain waste into on-site digester. The digester is being designed to convert discarded food into biogas, which can be combusted right at the facility for heating water. The leftovers of that process would be used to make compost. The group is now addressing questions about how these systems will fit with busy cafeteria and grocery store operations, where employees are used to chucking food waste into dumpsters.

“What we’re going to have to do is work with customers to enable our unit to be practical for them. We can’t just come in and drop the thing off and say, ‘Good luck,’” Briggs says. “We actually have to work with them to see how we can integrate with their operations.”

To support its nascent operations, ReGenerate got some help through a $25,000 prize from the Accelerate Michigan contest last month. It’s won about $45,000 in total from that other competitions such as the 2010 DTE Clean Energy Prize, an annual contest supported by DTE Energy and U-M.

The group spent much of last year working on designing a prototype COWS (compact organic waste system) unit, which is a one-tenth-scale model of the dumpster-sized product they plan to ship to customers, Briggs says. At Michigan State’s Anaerobic Digestion and Education Research Center in East Lansing, they are testing the prototype’s biogas productivity. This data will help guide development of a full-sized test unit this year.

A big part of ReGenerate’s success so far appears to be a reflection of the experience of its team, according to their bios. Paul Davis, the group’s chief of operations and marketing, previously worked at S4 Energy Solutions, a joint venture of industry giant Waste Management and InEnTec. Robert Levine, the scientific chief, worked on anaerobic digestion technologies while he was an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont. And Nolan Orfield, chief of technology, is engaged in a National Science Foundation-funded study of hydrocarbon output from algal biomass.

Since early on, the group has been interested not only in rethinking the management of food waste (they say Americans send 31 million tons of it to landfills annually) but also in providing customers a new source of renewable energy, Briggs says. Part of the idea is that organizations that aren’t completely reliant on tapping power from the grid can reduce their energy risk. With its on-site digesters, those companies can use their own waste stream as an energy source, which could reduce their dependence on power from the grid and other centralized sources.

To be clear, ReGenerate isn’t the first outfit to harness energy from waste. Farms and landfills have been doing this for years, yet in at a much larger scale than the startup is proposing. ReGenerate appears to be on the verge of finding out whether its target customers are interested in its decentralized approach of waste-to-energy production. If so, the startup could become one of the Great Lake State’s big success stories in the renewable energy market.

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