Several years ago, Claire Schlemme cofounded an organic juice company in Boston, only to be disappointed by what her recipes left behind: plenty of pulp, a nutritious byproduct going to waste.
So she started another company to change that. In mid-2016, Schlemme became the CEO of Renewal Mill, a public benefit corporation that reduces food waste by transforming fiber-rich scraps from food processing operations into flour that can be sold wholesale. It’s now joined forces with Hodo Foods–the organic soy brand that sells tofu to Whole Foods, Target, Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and many Michelin-starred chefs–to make something nutritious made from okara, the main leftover from making tofu.
Tofu represents a particularly good test case because it yields such a huge amount of byproduct. The initial recipe requires soy milk, which must be extracted from dry soybeans, which are boiled and blended to produce the liquid that eventually results in tofu. Every pound of soy milk yields at least its own weight in wet pulp. For major manufacturers, this presents a pretty big storage and logistics hurdle.
Hodo used to unload it as animal feed for local dairies or livestock programs. But Renewal takes the pulp and dries it. The resulting flakes can be milled into flour with 46 grams of fiber. (There’s barely any in traditional white flour.) For Hodo, the partnership will ensure that the company turns 100% of their raw material into something edible. The tofu maker currently diverts between 5% and 10% of its processing leftovers to Renewal. It expects to ramp up quickly because there’s an additional financial incentive: Renewal pays about two and a half times more for the unrefined material than Hodo was previously selling the pulp for.
On Renewal’s side, okara flour sells for about the same price as other alternative flours. The Oakland-based company already makes its own chocolate chip cookies available in the Bay Area, and is in talks to develop a line of gluten-free cookies with Balhsen, Germany’s largest cookie manufacturer. It has also sold flour through grocery delivery company Imperfect Produce and the meal kit service Local Crate.
The concept earned Renewal a spot and equity investment from Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator this summer. In October, the company secured a research and development partnership with Cargill, which could expand the appeal of its ingredients to all sorts of food manufacturers. “Okara really struck a chord with me because it was so similar to some of the challenges I had with the juice business, but at this much greater scale,” Schlemme says. “It was this light bulb moment. Wow, this could be a really interesting solution to both the food waste challenge and also affordable nutrition.”
“Renewal is looking at industrial scale production and the impact [of that] is what excites me,” says Minh Tsai, the founder and CEO of Hodo, who is also an adviser for Renewal. Tsai emphasizes that okara will hopefully be just the first of many byproducts in the company’s portfolio. Renewal isn’t just selling one ingredient but a whole new way of sourcing them.