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Ecuadorian woman RISEs up with education and beer

Published on May 18, 2021

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Waste isn’t waste anymore

Bertha Jimenez is the co-founder of RISE Products, a startup that turns organic industrial waste into value by converting it into raw materials. RISE is currently focusing on converting by-products of the beer and wine industry into food grade materials.

Jimenez recently received her Ph.D. from NYU, where her doctoral thesis was entitled “The Entrepreneurial Sandbox: The Role of Co-Curricular Programs on Nurturing Student Entrepreneurs.”

She also holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral (Guayaquil, Ecuador) and an M.S. in Engineering and Technology Management from Portland State University (Portland, USA).

How it all started

Bertha Jimenez didn’t plan to create a company that would help reduce food waste; as a trained mechanical engineer, she was more interested in looking at how our cities are built. The potential for recycling beer waste first came into the cross hairs of Ms. Jimenez, an immigrant from Ecuador, while she was working toward her doctorate in 2015 at the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University where she entered a competition called Global Idea Exchange. Participants in the competition had to explore ways to improve cities.

Jimenez and a friend decided to address this by using a process called industrial symbiosis. That’s when the waste from one company is used as raw material for another company’s product.

Intent on finding ways to reduce industrial waste, she started a project with like-minded friends — most of them also immigrants — and craft beer provided an easy target: Everyone loved it, but it had issues.

Jimenez and her colleagues noticed the increasing number of microbreweries popping up in New York City. They also realized these companies were paying hundreds of dollars to discard brewer’s spent grain, a byproduct of the beer-making process. Every year, 42 million tons of the stuff, which is high in nutritional value, is thrown away globally. While some is repurposed as animal feed, compostable products or heating fuel, little has been exploited for its value as food.

Ms. Jimenez lives in Brooklyn, which at last count had 20 craft breweries that are tossing out spent grain. Ms. Jimenez and Ashwin Gopi, a classmate and a co-founder of RISE, began asking around for samples so they could figure out how best to reuse them.

Mr. Gopi called Jeff Lyons, who was then the brewer at Greenpoint Beer % Ale Co. “They told me they were trying to reduce waste,” said Mr. Lyons, who quickly agreed to supply some spent grain — three Tupperware containers’ worth, all the students could carry. “The grain still has nutritional value, and all we were doing was throwing it out.”

Brewing relies on grains, typically malted barley, which are first soaked in hot water. This step releases sugars that are crucial to the later production of alcohol. Once those sugars are released into the liquid, the grain is discarded (hence the term “spent grain”).

Knowing that barley was healthy, Mr. Gopi, Ms. Jimenez and a third founder, Jessica Aguirre, nibbled it plain. Spent grains look and taste like brown rice, without the heft. They stirred the stuff into porridge and baked it into cookies and cakes. But when they took the dried grain to bakers to gauge their interest, they were met with shrugs.

Finally, Peter Endriss, an owner of the Brooklyn bakery Runner & Stone, suggested they make flour. “It seemed like such a logical repurposing of spent beer grains,” he said

RISE Products now provides “Super Flour”

Today, the RISE Products team makes its flour in a commercial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens. The spent grains are dried in an oven, then ground, milled and sifted into a fine flour — all by hand, which is why it costs $8 a pound wholesale, and $16 retail. The price will drop, the partners say, when they raise more money, move to a bigger space and automate the process.

But because of the growing interest in reducing waste, many chefs and bakers are already eager to work with what the team is calling its “Super Flour.” RISE makes two kinds of “Super Flour” sourced from craft breweries in New York City. The light flour is made from spent grain used in ale or pilsner production, and the darker brown version comes from porter or stout.

At Runner & Stone, Mr. Endriss makes a shortbread cookie with a half-and-half blend of RISE flour and all-purpose flour. Bien Cuit, another Brooklyn bakery, has created a chocolate, barley and dulce de leche poundcake with a streusel made of RISE flour. Sfoglini, a Brooklyn pasta maker, produces pasta using a combination of semolina, rye and RISE flour.

Another champion of recycling food waste is the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whom Ms. Jimenez impulsively emailed in 2017 to see if he’d like a sample of RISE flour. He did, and later his staff asked for another 15 pounds. There is no word yet what they’ll do with it, but one day it may appear on the menu at Mr. Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, which was recently awarded the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

The RISE partners say some big brands have also requested samples, including Kellogg’s, Whole Foods and contract manufacturers for Nestlé and its subsidiary DiGiorno Pizza. (Barilla, the Italian pasta maker, has invested in ReGrained, a small start-up in the Bay Area that is making granola bars with brewery leftovers and its own spent-grain flour.)

Joel Gamoran, the national chef for Sur La Table stores, loved the scent of the RISE flour when he first opened a bag last summer. “It totally has this insane, nutty profile that you don’t get from flour,” he said. Mr. Gamoran talked with RISE about using it in his cooking classes, but until the price comes down, it’s just a conversation.

As barley contains less gluten than wheat, it works better with foods that don’t need to rise much, like biscuits or bread, Mr. Gamoran used the RISE flour for biscotti, crisp shortbread and wafers, which he thought were “400 times better than anything I had put together” in the past.

And because brewing removes sugars, RISE flour has one-third the carbohydrates of traditional all-purpose flour; because it’s made from barley, it has twice the protein and 12 times the fiber.

RISE now uses about 1,200 pounds of grain a week, from several craft brewers in Brooklyn; it takes about four and a half pounds of grain to make one pound of flour.

Path to growth

In order to grow, RISE applied to several business accelerators that could provide money and mentorship. In 2016, after Ms. Jimenez got her doctorate, RISE joined Food-X, an accelerator in New York City, and completed plans for a mechanical process that could speed flour production. The program connected them to a lawyer who helped them file a patent for the method in 2017.

That same year, the team joined Laudato Si’ Challenge, a Rome accelerator focused on solving global problems like food waste, that was inspired by Pope Francis.

In preparation for the final exhibition, Ms. Jimenez and Ms. Aguirre managed to make a cup of flour using a microwave at their Airbnb apartment in Rome. The two baked a loaf of banana bread and served it to Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the Vatican’s point person at the presentation. He liked it. “It was a proud moment,” Ms. Aguirre said.

The team hopes to move beyond brewery waste. It can use byproducts from wineries or juice bars; anything with a moisture content of more than 70 percent will work. With infinite waste streams to be tapped, the founders — who hail from India, Lithuania, Korea and other nations — have their sights set beyond the United States.

“In the long term, we can bring this to countries like ours,” Ms. Jimenez said. “We want to look at technologies that won’t be prohibitive for other people to have.”

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