Transcript: How to Use Innovation to Reduce Food Waste and Circular Economy Start-ups with Robert Luo
SEE THE SHOW NOTES AND LISTEN AT: How to Use Innovation to Reduce Food Waste and Circular Economy Start-ups with Robert Luo
Katherine Whalen [00:00:01] Hey there, Getting in the Loop listeners. Ever wondered what can be done in your industry to help create more circular economy? To mark the one year anniversary of the Getting in the Loop Podcast, I've put together a short e-book to help you navigate key circular trends in textiles and apparel, ICT and electronics and packaging. And it includes links to related reports as well as relevant Getting in the Loop podcast episodes. It's yours to receive when you join up to our podcast newsletter at Circular Sectors.GettingInTheLoopPodcast.com. So head over to our Web site to get your copy of the Circular Sectors Navigator. That's again, CircularSectors.GettingIntheLoopPodcast.com.
[00:00:48] Hi, I'm Katie Whalen. And join me each week of I talk with experts around the globe about Circular economy. You'll find out what's being done to make it a reality and if it can really solve the problems it promises. It's time for Getting in the Loop.
[00:01:04] Welcome back to the Getting in the Loop Podcast. I'm Katie and today's guest was inspired to find a solution to reuse food waste. After visiting his uncle's dairy farm. He now runs Mi Terro, a material technology company that turns excess milk and milk waste into fiber. Robert Luo is Mi Terro founder and CEO and a three time entrepreneur. He sold his first company for three hundred thousand dollars while he studied at the University of Southern California. And aside from being a Forbes under 30 scholar and 2009 Global Shaker's sustainable fashion innovator, he is also a recipient of the 25 under 25 by Social Entrepreneur Magazine and the All America Chinese Youth Federation. Top 30 under 30. In this episode, we're discovering more about potential uses for the estimated one hundred and twenty eight million tons of milk that is dumped globally every year. You will hear about how Robert created the world's first apparel line made from milk waste, which has sold to over 40 countries worldwide. And how he has made it happen in under two years. Without further ado, let's welcome Robert of Mi Terro.
Robert Luo [00:02:27] So my name is Robert Lowe on the CEO and founder of Mi Terro. Mi Terro is actually my third company. I had two previous successful actors. They were both acquired. I'm also the Forbes under 30 scholar. I was very fortunate to to be a recipient of Global Shaker's sustainable fashion innovator in 2019. And I was also honored to become an Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, a University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. And very recently I was nominated and received as the 25 Under 25 by Social Entrepreneur magazine.
Katherine Whalen [00:03:05] Wow. Those are some really big accomplishments. Congratulations.
Robert Luo [00:03:08] Yeah, thank you very much.
Katherine Whalen [00:03:10] So tell us about Mi Terro, and why you started Mi Terro.
Robert Luo [00:03:15] Yes, it's funny. So Mi Terro is the world's only new material technology company that turns excess milk into sustainable fibers. And our fibers can apply to apparel, medical appliances, better lighting like bed sheets, pillows, sheets and packaging. And our goal is to replace petroleum materials with protein based materials specially made from food waste. And the story of starting Mi Terro goes back to my visit to my uncle's dairy farm in China in 2018. When I visit his farm, I was shocked to see the buckets and buckets of sour and spoiled milk that was sitting at his farm, and he was really fresh it because those were money that he couldn't he couldn't sell. So he asked me to help and find a solution. So when I came back to the States, I did a lot of research. And that's the beginning story of Mi Terro.
Katherine Whalen [00:04:05] Yeah, well, we're going to dive deeper into it throughout the podcast. I'm just curious, what has been the response with your current customers and people who you have been collaborating with in order to actually make me happen?
Robert Luo [00:04:20] The response has been surprisingly great. People come back to purchase more because the quality of our product is softer than cotton is moisture wicking. And also it's very comfortable to wear to sleep. In fact, people told us, our customer told us they were asleep, PJ. That is something we didn't know in the beginning. So to give you one example, the chief communication officer of Chey group, she initially supports on Take Schutter. She purchased two products. And when she worded that, she she lives in Singapore. I know she loves it so much. She came back and purchased, I think, seven or eight more to give to all her family friends. And now we're talking with Chiku to potentially replace their apparel line with the matures that we have.
Katherine Whalen [00:05:06] Oh, wow. supercool.
Robert Luo [00:05:08] So that that is something we know until our customers come back and give us a great, great feedback.
Katherine Whalen [00:05:13] Yeah, yeah. Well, it's always good to see you being used. And then people like coming back for more, which means that they are really excited about it. I mean, when I was preparing for this call, I was thinking, has. Have people reacted kind of like, oh, I don't want to have access, you know, milk, waste it as my clothing like. Is that like other like hygenic concerns that people have voiced to you?
Robert Luo [00:05:40] We did have some feedback from the vegan community. The fact that using dairy is cool. And for us, the initial point is we want to reduce the consumption of dairy. And that's why we only used those newquist, so to speak, of spoiled, sour or on. So milk we want to address of the problem with all these milk ways. And dairy is just the beginning because my uncle's story, we are expanding, researching on vegan milk as well. So that's first time with vegan milk. We are testing right out a soy soy milk because we know there is huge consumption of that around the world, especially in China where our supply chain is. So, yeah, we want to go beyond dairy.
Katherine Whalen [00:06:23] Yeah. Yeah. So give us a general walkthrough of the kind of process where you get your milk and how you sort of make it happen.
Robert Luo [00:06:32] Yes. So the shirts that you see on our website actually came from my uncle's dairy farm. Firstly for Mi Terro. And now we're in touch with farmers in Inner Mongolia who are heavily impact, who are struggling with their finance. We're also speaking with milk companies in China. The first one we're partnered with is Ho Chi Minh, which is one of the biggest state owned dairy producer in China and the US. We are also in touch with several food companies. We are currently a vendor of Danone, which the parent company of Silk Horizon. We're also speaking with Nestlé and General, most to help them reduce their milkweeds.
Katherine Whalen [00:07:15] Yeah, okay. Yeah. That was one of my my questions that I had for you a little bit later, because I guess I'll just ask you. And now, because I'm sure some of my listeners are going to think like, so what happens if the amount of food waste decreases? I mean, I ideally I would say that we probably don't want to have this kind of sour milk. Maybe I would we even jumping the gun because I'm I'm just curious, like, why does this milk end up as waste? Is it that it can't be sold or is this just part of the sort of milk production process at all times?
Robert Luo [00:07:51] So with dairy farmers, a lot of times they couldn't sell it. They usually sell it to these milk producers. But a lot of milk producers now have their own farms, so they don't rely on these farmers anymore and the processing facilities. There are a lot of ways, as you can imagine. So milk has KSAN and way, and a lot of times we only use case and to create yogurt. We'll have it all the way. They basically ship it out. And that's what General Mills have told me. They really shipped out two to three truck loads of weight every single day to their to to landfill or to burn it for electricity, which creates methane as a result. So there is so much milk waste and so much waste out there. We trying to find a solution for it. And to answer the question will happen.
[00:08:39] If there's a reduction in food waste, if there's a reduction and eventually as normal freeways, we'll be very happy. That means we're doing excellent job. If we have to go bankrupt because of this, we'll have to do so. And essentially, we want to turn any type of food as protein into a sustainable byproduct. It can be for for Aperol a bit for packaging. We're we're also working on a solution to replace plastic packaging with packaging made from milk waste.
Katherine Whalen [00:09:08] So I imagine that there are other options, just not just, you know, milk, but as you said, like all these different proteins and things that you could use. Yeah. Yes, that is correct. Yeah. So give us a little insight into the process of setting this up, because as you mentioned earlier, you did you did a Kickstarter. So I'm curious, like, how did how did you go about this and how did you set this up?
Robert Luo [00:09:34] Yes. So I went to a lot of the you guys and probably interested in this technology. How is that possible? So obviously, first of all, we have to get the milk waste. And there are two versions of our technology. With the first version, we extract the case and protein from the milk and we spin it into fiber through our patent pending process. And once we have the fiber, we we need it to ya. Ya later turned to fabric and we tie the fabric and turned into a shirt. So to create any kind of sure. They wear what is cotton was model, they're essentially a bone process takes was six to seven processes to make it happen. And with the second version of the technology we're working on. We don't have to do the extraction anymore when they're really just in liquid form of milk into fiber. That means not only are we saving 50, 60 percent in the cost was also using 60 percent or more less water compared to cotton. So it's more of a eco-friendly, a sustainable way of producing our material.
Katherine Whalen [00:10:37] Yeah. And so you did a kickstarter to get this kind of off the ground?
Robert Luo [00:10:44] Yes, we did a kickstarter last year to validate our market and we have not spent a dollar on marketing. So today it came from a lot of publications, though, feature like Forbes is inside of Vogue and even China Central Television, which brought us the one billion people. Wow. That was a big shocker. We didn't know that. Well, we will be in Chinese television. And the biggest one. So that was a big, big push for us. And because of that, we decide to launch in China in May or June when the corona virus pandemic gets better and in Japan in two months.
Katherine Whalen [00:11:20] Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And so then you talked a little bit about where you're getting your milk supplier from. And can I ask, like, are you doing this in existing factories or. Yeah. How does it happen? How does it happen?
Robert Luo [00:11:37] So we are doing it with the existing factories but we do not own the factory. We are partners basically. Our technology can be done in the existing spin machine. We just have to make adjustments to the process of how we convert newquist into fiber.
Katherine Whalen [00:11:53] Yeah. Wow. That's coming back to what you said earlier to you about that. You haven't really spent any money for the marketing. That's quite amazing as well.
Robert Luo [00:12:04] Yes. And that was also a big shocker for us. We've got so much support. And I do think that if anyone wants to start a project, kickstarter might be a great way to go. Promote to get your voice out, because they can reach to much bigger audience than you could with just a couple of friends around you.
Katherine Whalen [00:12:22] Yeah. Did you have any help with, like, putting up your-- I actually did a kickstarter to get the game out to people and that was also my validation sort of stance was like, well, will people who I've been meeting who are saying that they're interested in it, will they actually go and get it if I make it available? So I know it's kind of like the back end of doing that. And I think it's a great way to validate sort of your existing market and to find different people and reach out. I know a lot now in terms of kickstarter is that they do you can, like, work with people to, like, help you do your video or to like put it on the website and to promote it. So did you do any of that or did you kind of just do it, DIY yourself?
Robert Luo [00:13:07] Right. So initially we were thinking the traditional route, which is to partner with agencies that help capital to start the Kickstarter campaign. The after consulting that, we found out that the upfront cause was too high for us, especially for sort of small projects. So we took the marriage, our whole hands, basically. I drew the sketch of what I want to see in our video scene by scene. And I shot the video with my friend and I did everything myself, learning from scratch. I have no experience in photography, no experience in editing. I have to force myself to learn everything in just one month and edit a video that you see on kickstarter. It was not an easy task, but I am really glad I did it because I learned so much just pushing myself beyond my limit.
Katherine Whalen [00:13:54] Yeah, I think that's that's something that they'll just like listeners can also take away is like if you have an idea, like you just even if you don't know what you're what you're doing. I mean, that was the case for me with that with my kickstarter as well. And I made my film with the help of a friend. And I look back at it now and I don't want to watch it at all. I'm so embarrassed, you know, with it. And it looks looks mine looks horrible compared to people who actually paid people to make it professionally. Yours looks way better than mine. I watched your video, but I was shocked that when I found out just now that you you did it all yourself because I was like, oh, it looks so professional. But I think for the listeners, like, that's something if you have an idea, then just just start somewhere and doesn't matter what you kind of put out, but is just about trying to talk about your idea and spread it.
Robert Luo [00:14:47] Absolutely. Absolutely not. And I think oftentimes people are afraid not because they couldn't do it. It's afraid that they'll fail, that this the feeling of getting rejected or being fail or getting critique is what stopped people from moving forward. And for an entrepreneur, that's what happens every single day. We reach out to people that either do respond to say, hey, I'm not interested. They have to go beyond your normal circumstances to start something, you know, inspire other people to work the same way.
Katherine Whalen [00:15:20] I imagine, Robert, that you're not really afraid of failure at this this point, or are you still kind of afraid of getting that no?
Robert Luo [00:15:29] I mean, from time to time, I don't want to hear no, but this my third company. So I have gone through a lot of ups and downs from people that are closest to me, to people that I don't know at all. So here I know doesn't affect me that much anymore. It just tells me I can be better the next time I talk to this person or the next person, I can have a different way of approaching the topic.
[00:15:55] So our listeners are mainly working professionals who are maybe trying to also start something related to using circular strategies like reuse or repair, industrial symbiosis, you know, using excess food waste or things like that. And I would wanted to ask you, you've given some great advice just now, but if you could kind of go back in time to yourself before starting Mi Terro, is there something that you would tell yourself kind of from the lens of a sustainable entrepreneur?
Robert Luo [00:16:30] Yes. Well, first of all, do tons of research, see what the problem is? I'm a strong believer that whenever there's a problem, there's always a way to find a solution. That's opportunity. So we found a problem with milkweeds and someone else might. My funding problem with other types of waste save banana waste? They say coconut waste or kokabee waste, which can be turned into another type of sustainable byproduct. I think a lot of times problems are out there. You just have to find a solution to solve those problems.
Katherine Whalen [00:17:03] Yeah. What you said in terms of the fact that your uncle, I believe, is like your uncle, who's the dairy, the dairy farmer. So you kind of have that that insight in just from talking to him. You're able to identify some sort of of challenge. And I'm sure that a lot of other people have. Family, friends, colleagues, expertize that is different than you or I. So they are looking at it from a different perspective.
Robert Luo [00:17:33] Yes, yes. And I believe that most start ups, when they're small, it will come from personal story. Something that's close to us.
Katherine Whalen [00:17:42] Yeah. Yeah. So what's next then for Mi Terro? I know that you're partnering with Operation Food Search, but I'm sure you're also having many other kind of goals and expectations that you want to achieve with this company.
Robert Luo [00:17:58] Absolutely. So one exciting campaign that we're about to start is with Operation Food Search. They are a food donation on non-profits. So we are looking to to start a campaign in which people get twenty five percent discount on all of our products. And we will donate 20 free meals to Operation Food Search whenever this column is used. So we are super excited about this opportunity because a lot of people, a lot of students, kids, they rely on free meals, schools. The schools are closed down right now. So where are they getting the food essentially from these great food donation services? And we want to be a big supporter of social impact and myself. I'm a huge supporter of social impact. I started my first nonprofit when I was a sophomore at high school. We built wells in rural China to provide clean water resource to villagers. So all around, I think I would love to be a part of a great mission that can help other people to accelerate, to inspire them. And we also want our work to go beyond just ourselves. We want to help other fashion companies or other companies to make transitions. So Nike has purchased some products and fibers to do more testing. We have also signed a deal with a Chen Ralph born in Richmond, because they are interested in the work we do. And if they do see that we can provide a viable solution to the sustainable matu of the future. So we are very excited about our partnerships and get our mission out to big corporations can make a bigger change more quickly than we could.
Katherine Whalen [00:19:29] Super cool. So you're going to kind of provide them with, like the technology or the maybe will you be providing them with the the technology or the material itself? Maybe you can tell a little bit about what your your ideal sort of plan would be.
Robert Luo [00:19:47] Yes. With these big corporations of fashion brands, we'll be providing all the fiber initially. And once our technology is fully putten, we will be license our technology. And we understand that there are other smaller brands who does not own their entire supply chain. So we can create a final product like, say, the milk shirt for them and they basically put their label on it. Why label it? And they can sell it as well.
Katherine Whalen [00:20:11] Wow. So there's a lot of different potential ways that you could grow Mi Terro in the future.
Robert Luo [00:20:19] Yes. And we want to mention we want to help other brands to celebrate. It shouldn't be just about us.
Katherine Whalen [00:20:26] Yyeah. Super cool. I think it's great. They are collaborating. Is there a partnership or some sort of collaboration that you've had over the last couple of the last couple of years that you think like this was something that really helps me to grow, to really take off and if it wasn't for this one sort of partnership, we wouldn't be where we are today?
Robert Luo [00:20:52] I would say there was a very interesting partnership that we had with the nose, which we are currently a vendor of. So we supply them with apparels for their dairy farm this year. It was actually in February, and I had a call with one of their managers last week and she was really happy, impressed with the materials, the technology and the product that we provide. So we're talking about potentially supplying them for their future events entirely with our products and Danone as a male company. So if we can make shirts for their employees with their own milk, that'll be an interesting story to tell.
Katherine Whalen [00:21:28] Yeah, that's super cool. It's a very quite definitely closing the loop in within one company.
Robert Luo [00:21:34] Yes, that's a circular economy.
Katherine Whalen [00:21:35] Yeah. Super cool. Super cool. So this has been super fun to talk with you and to find out a bit more about Mi Terro and your plans for the future. Before we before you go, I wanted to ask the question that I ask all of the guests that come on the Getting in the Loop Podcast, which is about the game that I created and now you know that I kick started, which is your it's called In the Loop and you're a product producing company and you have to travel around the board to get materials to make your product. And there's different events in the game that either help you or hurt you in being able to achieve your goal. So the question that I ask is if you could create an event for the game. Robert, what kind of topic? Would you focus your event card to be on right out?
Robert Luo [00:22:27] We focus on food waste to see if you can find any type of foods around you in your kitchen, in your refrigerator, and turn into something that could be useful. I know that people have tried to use cornstarch to create mold for for their focus for cups. So that is something very interesting that I've learned. So I do believe that there are so many ideas in your kitchen alone that you can make it possible.
Katherine Whalen [00:22:54] Yeah, super cool. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. And I'm going to post some of the related links at your Kickstarter page, if that's okay and, of course, your website, on the Getting in the Loop Podcast Web site. But where can listeners go to learn more about you and the topics that we discussed?
Robert Luo [00:23:12] Yeah, you can definitely find me on LinkedIn as RobertLuo8 and also on Instagram, the account will be MiTerro.fashion.
Katherine Whalen [00:23:21] Yes. I follow you there. It's a nice account that you have.
Robert Luo [00:23:26] Thank you very much.
Katherine Whalen [00:23:27] Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Robert.
Robert Luo [00:23:29] Thank you for having me, Katie. Great talking to you.
Katherine Whalen [00:23:32] Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed today's podcast. As Robert mentioned in this episode, Mi Terro and Operation Food Search, the fight against hunger. Just use the discount code, it's 25 percent off at MiTerro.com and 20 meals will be donated to a child in need. And as always, head over to the Getting in the Loop website at GettingInTheLoopPodcast.com for the show notes and links related to today's episode.
About the Show
Getting In the Loop is a weekly podcast dedicated to exploring how to transform to a more circular society. Join host Katie Whalen as she examines the challenges facing our current resource use and discovers alternatives to the ‘take, make, dispose’ way of doing things. Each week she interviews circular economy experts about what they’re doing and learning. Together we'll uncover what circular economy means in practice and find out what's being done to keep our resources in a loop rather than sent to waste.