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MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative

Sustainability

Manuela Zoninsein is on a mission to free the world from single-use plastics

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Manuela first started thinking about single-use plastics when she working as a journalist and communications entrepreneur in China. During that time, from 2007 to 2015, she witnessed the country go from reuse to single use on a massive scale, quickly realizing that the shift was entirely unsustainable. But what could she do?

Kedaya’s founder and CEO, Manuela Zoninsein, right, and mechanical engineer Cameron Mastoras.

Credit: Kadeya

When she joined MIT’s Executive MBA in 2018, Manuela, who is originally from Brazil, was working in business development at a data-tech company in New York City. It was there she started an internal sustainability club that worked to reduce single-use plastics in the company’s offices. To her delight, the group’s efforts actually reduced waste by 30%, which exceeded what recycling was achieving.

This got Manuela thinking…maybe she could turn that success into something other businesses could benefit from? It wasn’t long before she got the idea for Kadeya, a smart, sustainable beverage vending system.

While Manuela’s drive to tackle the single-use plastics problem might have sparked in China, it came to fruition at MIT.  

“Within three months of the EMBA program, my classmates said, ‘you’re obsessed with sustainability, why are you selling software?’Manuela recalls. They were right. She promptly quit her tech job, and from then on, used every MIT class, research report, project, and campus club to work on the problem of single-use beverage plastic.

Manuela Zoninsein | Founder +CEO, Kadeya, EMBA '20, Sustainability Certificate
I am so grateful for this environment where people support big, impactful ideas— people who continue to be my community.

John Sterman’s system dynamics software helped her develop her business model. A marketing class helped her set pricing for her water bottles. An S-Lab experience with Farmer’s Fridge, a fresh food vending machine company, gave her hands-on experience with running a sustainable vending business. And the MIT Sandbox introduced her to the valuable mentors and investors who helped her launch Kadeya. 

“I’d never come across such incredible, ambitious, smart people who are also collaborative,” she says. “I am so grateful for this environment where people support big, impactful ideas— people who continue to be my community.’

So, what exactly does Kadeya do? 

Kadeya kiosks are closed-loop beverage vending machines powered by digitally-connected reusable bottles. When Kadeya customers are finished with a beverage they’ve vended from one kiosk, they can return their bottle to any Kadeya, where it is washed, sanitized, inspected, and refilled. Drink. Wash. Repeat. The system eliminates the need for single-use beverage containers, while reducing waste, costs, and carbon footprint.

“We think of ourselves as combining a bottling plant with a dishwasher with a soda fountain,” Manuela told Forbes in 2022. “And that’s the first time that’s ever been done.”

Credit: Kadeya

 

As her business grows, Manuela still finds herself tapping into what she learned at MIT Sloan and the Sustainability Initiative.

“The challenge is always focus,” she says. “Listen for clues that can guide your strategy. Be opportunistic. Treat the market as a big lab, and use data to inform your decisions. And always ask yourself how you can take challenges and make them into opportunities.” It’s a lesson Manuela learned early in her new venture. 

Successful entrepreneurs learn to pivot.

Originally, Manuela had planned to launch Kadeya in office buildings, airports, and hotels, but with COVID-19 curtailing travel and workers spending fewer hours in their offices in person, she quickly changed course. “The pandemic was actually a blessing for us,” she says. “It pushed me to focus on sanitization and convenience, and re-evaluate my customer base.” 

When she pivoted, Manuela realized there was another, more profitable market for Kadeya—in the industrial sector. “We now have contracts with a construction company, a manufacturing plant, a pharmaceutical production facility, and the U.S. Air Force. For these customers,we’re not only helping them reduce the headache of plastic bottle distribution, we’re also helping them reach employee health and safety goals, in addition to sustainability goals.”

In another development, Manuela is excited that Kadeya is beginning to work with a billion-dollar beverage brand to test flavorings for sparkling water and other flavored beverages in its machines. For soda companies, she says, it could be a way to tackle the problem of plastic waste and the carbon footprint of their products and shipping methods by eliminating the waste and emissions before they even happen.

Looking ahead, Manuela believes her platform can help the entire beverage industry transition away from single-use plastic without sacrificing any of the quality, convenience or profitability it provides them today. And it’s pretty simple.

Drink. Wash. Repeat.

Manuela is thrilled to report that Kadeya has committed all of its units for 2023. The company is currently building out its waitlist for 2024. If you’d like to get in line for a Kadeya system, sign up here www.kadeya.info.

For more info Dominic Farello Assistant Director