Thanks to Dibbs, the amount of food restaurants waste will decrease dramatically

Lauren Schatz, Engineering Communications Inten

This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2017 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, and customer development, and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the final round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who serve as judges. The judges will determine teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $220,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.

Restaurants, cafes and the like are faced with a problem each day at closing time—what should they do with the leftover, unsold food items?

The Dibbs team of Marty Puru, Melissa Jin, and Kathleen Hu are hoping the Dibbs app can start to gain traction by the fall semester.
The Dibbs team of Marty Puru, Melissa Jin, and Kathleen Hu are hoping the Dibbs app can start to gain traction by the fall semester.
Much of this food cannot be saved and reused for the following day, so where does it go?

The most common answer is…the trash can. .

This reoccurring issue troubled Kathleen Hu, a junior in industrical and enterprise systems engineering, but it wasn’t until she interned in Paris last semester that she realized there was a solution.

In Paris, Hu was introduced to a business model that sought to reduce daily restaurant waste. It was an app that allowed its users to purchase food from restaurants for a reduced price near closing time. This way, restaurants, cafes and delis were able to sell the product that they would have normally thrown away. Customers also benefited as they received a discounted price.

“This business model is a win-win,” said Hu. “There are a lot of good feelings associated with it. I was reducing waste and trying new food, and that was amazing!”

Hu thought that this waste-reduction solution could be implemented in the United States. While still in Paris, she reached out to two friends back on campus—Melissa Jin, a junior in computer engineering, and Marty Puru, a junior in electrical engineering—and invited them to join her in establishing a startup with a similar business model for US producers and consumers.

“Asking Melissa and Marty to join me was a no brainer,” said Hu. “The three of us often talk about startups, and we always said that if anyone had an idea, we’d all join in and make it happen.”

Staying true to their word, Jin and Puru collaborated with Hu and began market research for the startup.

The market research process was a mixture of both cold calling and in-store visits, where the team asked local vendors various questions, including what they currently do at the end of the day with leftover food, how much food is wasted, and what they think of the concept.

The team found that nearly all the vendors do have a problem with food waste but don’t have an immediate solution, so they are forced to throw unsold items away. The team also surveyed their peers for feedback and to understand if they would use the app. An overall positive reception instilled confidence in the team as they were finding that there was indeed a need for their technology.

With this information, their team has moved ahead with developing a unique work flow and system that they believe will give them their competitive advantage. In their eyes, vendors have nothing to lose and only potential profits to earn. If they succeed, they will open the doors to a $47 billion dollar industry. In effect, students will benefit from the cheap food and vendors will be able to sellout their inventory – a win-win for all.

“From grocery store bakeries and delis to even farmer’s markets, this could be a solution that everyone from suburbia to cities to rural communities could adopt,” said Hu.

The team has designed a beta test for proof of concept and has a vocal agreement for implementation with its first vendor—a café and grocery store—in Urbana. Their goal is to launch the Dibbs app at the beginning of the fall semester.

In the meantime, the Dibbs team is participating in Cozad workshops that outline necessary business functions.

“We’re learning a lot about things we haven’t considered, like proving product market fit and planning the financials,” said Hu. “Our team is grounded in technology so we’re being exposed to the functions outside that realm.”

These workshops have taught the team that marketing is imperative to product recognition and success, so Hu will spend her summer focusing primarily on the marketing arm of their development.

She plans to establish campus ambassadors at the University of Illinois and at other colleges and universities during the summer break so that Dibbs will begin to gain traction when students return to campus in the fall.