Can Food Become Renewable Biofuel?

According to the USDA, food waste makes up 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States. That’s 131 billion pounds a year, not to mention billions of dollars and a vast waste of labor and resources. Despite the development of tools aimed at addressing the problem, food waste remains a massive contributor to the climate crisis.

Brittny Chong, MBA ’22

Brittny Chong, MBA ’22, finds the impacts of food waste deeply troubling—and it’s spurring her into action. Using machine learning analytics and the latest in computer vision, she’s created a smart food waste bin called WiRa to tackle the problem. WiRa is two things: a food “sorter” that identifies which food products are often discarded and an analytics app that reduces the cost of inventory for food service operators by improving procurement forecasting. In turn, they’ll be able to better gauge the supplies needed and buy less food that would otherwise be thrown out.

Eventually, WiRa’s goal is to turn food waste into biofuel—a local, renewable energy source. Chong and her team of climate scientists and engineers in computer vision and machine learning hope that WiRa will become an important puzzle piece to combat food waste, particularly in island communities across Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. In a 2020 MIT Spectrum article, she explained, “Their primary source of income is tourism … they will be impacted first by climate change even if they’re not contributing to it at the same rate.”

WiRa is Chong’s third startup developed at MIT Sloan. Her first, ONA (meaning “ownership” in Jamaican Patois) uses augmented reality (AR) to help consumers improve their socially conscious spending with analytics. The second, Two Breaths, uses AR and machine learning to provide calming Snapchat filters that assist with anxiety. When Chong joined the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI) hardware bootcamp in Hong Kong, she saw the waste management problems that were affecting poor members of the community and felt compelled to take action.

Chong collaborated with Joseph Hui, SB ’81, SM ’81, PhD ’83, an inventor, president and CEO at the award-winning renewable energy company Monarch Power, and a pioneer in climate change solutions. Hui served as a mentor and advisor while she participated in MEMSI, providing guidance and support as she developed her ideas. With the help of faculty, alumni, and other resources, she’s been incubating and expanding WiRa.

Chong hails from Jamaica and grew up in New York City. She’s always been focused on social impact, both in her undergraduate work at Amherst College and in her careers as a social worker in New York City and a management consultant at Deloitte. MIT Sloan has helped her bring her entrepreneurial spirit to action. Chong explains that MIT was always her school of choice, thanks to its unique “hunger for innovation, combined with the humility that I was raised with, and the relatable, self-effacing, open curiosity.” Receiving fellowship funding from MIT Sloan, including the Beatrice Ballini (1986) Fellowship, gave her the opportunity to pursue her dreams.

Chong says she wants to spend her career designing tools that “help communities take accountability for their role in climate change.” For her, WiRa is just the beginning.