Bigger Than Us #106: From Waste to Ag Resource
An interview with Tinia Pina of Re-Nuble
Bigger Than Us Episode 106
This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.
Host Raj Daniels 02:27
If you are asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?
Tinia Pina 02:37
I’m a very spiritual person in the sense that I really like being outdoors, doing a lot of grounding work, or just being near nature. That’s honestly therapy in every sense of the way of the word for me. There’s been a lot of times where I’ve had my own kind of reckoning with life. And oftentimes, I could navigate some kind of pressing challenges. And nature provided the environment to do that. So I would say, it not only has helped me be a great leader, and I know, that’s bias coming from me. But I also think the same person that I am for the business and the people that I’m fortunate to work with, I’m also that same person to my family and friends. And I think if I can keep that consistency, it’s because of who I am at my core.
Host Raj Daniels 03:30
So if you don’t mind, can you share more about your relationship with nature?
Tinia Pina 03:38
The word of grounding, what I mean by that is, there’s a simple exercise of taking off your shoes, and going barefoot and just putting your feet in the soil, and allowing yourself to kind of reset and take on the energy of the earth. And a lot of times, people have premonitions, or people have insights, whether it be for business or just for life in very kind of serendipitous ways, but a lot of times those instincts come to me when I’m in nature. So whether it’s being by water, it is a sense of free therapy, and there’s actually a Japanese word for it I can’t remember at right now where, the term is used to refer to forest therapy, essentially allowing yourself to be immersed in a forest setting. There are energetic influences, that really help people bring down their blood pressure, their cholesterol, and a number of other factors that don’t require someone to ingest something. So I firmly come from the belief that we have a lot of tools in front of us through nature and through food, when grown the right way to heal ourselves. And certainly, nature is another conduit for that.
Host Raj Daniels 04:53
You know, I so agree and what you’ve shared resonates deeply with me. I have plants in my house that I talked to quite often and my kids always make fun of me because I tell them all conversations I have with them. And I love to get out in nature myself. And I totally agree with you regarding the grounding. I walk around barefoot outside quite a bit, and I get a great feeling from doing so. And staying on that topic for a moment. I watched a very interesting TED Talk a few days ago by a lady named by the name of Nirupa Rao. And she started out with such an interesting question. She showed a picture a photograph of traffic in India, I don’t know what city and she said, You know, when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, essentially, you can look around, you can probably name at least four or five of the brand of cars that around us, a Toyota, Honda, etc. Then she said, Now look at the picture, look at the trees, how many of these can you name? And she said, You know, so often we relegate nature to the backdrop of life. And I don’t know why. But that really hit home with me that how we walk through nature every single day but relegated to the backdrop and not to the forefront of life. And I just feel like, if we took a little bit more time to commune with nature, as you described, I think we would all be a little better off.
Tinia Pina 06:10
Absolutely. And if I can add on that a partner of ours, Matt, who during his time at the University of Alabama, he was a plant technician. So a lot of times they did a lot of subsequent trials, a lot of different replications. And they noticed that when there were other scientists working with the same plants, oftentimes those operators, those moving plants from seedling and then transplanting it to a new system to grow throughout its entire harvest. If anytime they were more aggressive, or there was a lot of physical, abrupt, and aggressive movements with the plant, they did realize there was proof to show that those instances created a shock to the plant and did inhibit their growth. So there are certainly biochemical reactions that happen that we haven’t really analyzed yet and perhaps don’t really understand at the granular level, to show that plants can respond to us. They take in a lot of external indicators that they can receive. We just haven’t really even kind of scraped the surface of understanding, perhaps how to optimize food, create more nutritious food by just really being more sensitive to their environment.
I firmly come from the belief that we have a lot of tools in front of us through nature and through food, when grown the right way to heal ourselves. And certainly, nature is another conduit for that.
Host Raj Daniels 07:32
So another interesting point is that, you know, we don’t think of plants as sentient beings. But I have a feeling that we’re going to learn a lot more about plants in the future. I’m gonna take a hard right turn here. Can you give us an overview of Re-Nuble?
Tinia Pina 07:54
Yeah, absolutely. Re-Nuble is an agricultural technology company that uses organic cycling science approach to decarbonize the global fertilizer supply chain, which currently contributes to 3% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. So ultimately, we take produce waste, that’s unrecoverable residual from food manufacturers, distributors, and processors. And we turn it into controlled water-soluble organic hydroponic nutrients.
And I know that’s a mouthful, but ultimately, the main thing that we really are committed to driving is to not only increasing the profitability of farms so that they’re more incentivized, and help supply more organic, zero chemically laden food, because that profitability is attractive, especially with the ability to sometimes capture 66 to 82%. higher margins depending on the crop. We also seek to lower the carbon footprint of the farms using our product because we’re able to reclaim the nutrients from localized waste streams. And we’re really committed to displacing conventional mineral salts, which are the synthetic fertilizer substitute that a lot of these soilless or sophisticated farms that use just water, and right now mineral salts to grow food, or really want to use food waste and make it compatible for them to grow organically using that.
Third, really trying to increase the nutrient density of our food. You know, it’s my dream — both of my grandparents, I should say on both sides of my family had diabetes and a number of different limbs were removed because of the severity of their condition. And I really wish for the day, am committed to seeing the day where we can grow food where you know, someone that has a dietary guideline of needing more potassium, for example, or more vitamin B, or vitamin C, we’re able to source that directly from the food instead of having to have additional supplements. For having additional fortification involved in our processing. So that’s what I’m really eager and excited and committed to. I think Re-Nuble is exciting for us because not only do we, you know, really want to make the food supply chain more resilient and sustainable, but also we do that in a very closed-loop operation within our facility as well.
Host Raj Daniels 10:20
So you’re right, that is a mouthful. Something jumped out to me when you were speaking there unrecoverable vegetative waste stream. Can you explain what that is?
Tinia Pina 10:33
A great example is we work with a supplier where they take mixed vegetables. And it’s the same bag of vegetables that you can normally buy from your supermarket. So just as a frozen bag of mixed vegetables normally sells for $3 and 50, or $4 and 99 cents, depending on the unit size. They will have sometimes either food that is recalled, or it’s not of the same quality that they can sell to their customers. And in some cases, if it’s too far to divert it to a composting facility, or an anaerobic digester for processing, it’s much more effective for us to take it because we can be closer proximity to these facilities. And take that residual that you know, it can’t be sold to direct to consumers, like you or myself, or let’s say a food service company, or easily get into a food bank or animal farm. So it’s that residual that can’t be recovered for food or animal usage typically.
Host Raj Daniels 11:33
And can you speak to your organic cycling method and then who your customers are?
Tinia Pina 11:41
Our organic cycling science essentially, that’s our approach of recirculating nutrient water in a way that allows for the farms to use our nutrients that doesn’t cause the need to flush. And I’ll explain what that is shortly, doesn’t cause the clogging risks, which are often associated with anytime someone’s trying to incorporate organics in a hydroponic or soilless system. And when I say organics, I’m thinking of compost tea, fish emulsion, any other type of organic fertilizer that would be perfect for soil. But in a hydroponic system, it can often be very disruptive, and it often leads to build-up of mold. So in a soilless farm, oftentimes, they have to use mineral salts. So think of Epsom salts that you would use in your bathtub or at a spa, they dissolve very quickly. But the plant, anything that isn’t used by the plant can be toxic.
And so a farm, after two weeks of applying these mineral salts, they’ll have to dump out that water. And that’s at the cost of taxpayers like you and myself and your municipal wastewater treatment plant to process that water and turn it back into potable water. And if that water leeches into the environment, there’s a risk there. So our goal is to essentially use reclaimed nutrients from a controlled sterilized food waste stream that is effective for the soilless systems to be able to use as a nutrient source.
Host Raj Daniels 13:09
And then who buys your product?
Tinia Pina 13:11
Yeah, great question. So we sell basically direct to other soilless farms as well as distributors. A great example of some of the farms that you may have heard in the news because there’s been a surge in vertical farms, indoor growing, and just greenhouses in general. Some of these fan farms are like Bright farms, Gotham Greens. But there are even other more traditional greenhouses that have been operating for years, much longer than the more niche vertical farming industry. And then your traditional greenhouses. So those are great examples of direct to farm customers, other would-be distributors, such as American hydroponics that resell to those farms as well.
Host Raj Daniels 13:56
So is your product a solid product?
Tinia Pina 14:01
Before COVID, it was a solid product. Because of COVID, we did have to completely change and redesign, I should say, our production plan because it forced us to be more prudent with the CapEx requirements. And so what we did was we basically created a liquid form of the organic hydroponic nutrient, but in about 12 months, we’ll have a solid form of that. The benefit to the farms of having a solid product is certainly the cost-effectiveness of shipping and storing a solid product. So that’s always been the goal, but we had to do a slight detour due to COVID.
Host Raj Daniels 14:42
Well, you mentioned COVID and it seems like you’re quite successful during COVID. I saw an article that says Re-Nuble was selected as Grow New York 2020 finalists, can you share what that is?
Tinia Pina 14:53
Yeah, I’d be happy to, and thanks for recognizing that. We haven’t announced it yet. But we were lucky especially during these times. Even more so now than then even now to close our seed round of 1 million. And then that also, with the recent news about Grow NY that certainly helped with our momentum. So Grow NY is a New York state-based business competition challenge. It’s focused on creating more job opportunities, and economic development within the state, but focused on food and agriculture exclusively. So we really sit in the sweet spot of helping provide a sustainable service and more cost-effective solution for the food waste manufacturers, so more on the upstream or higher up on the value chain, and then also the downstream customers that I just mentioned. But certainly, on the waste recycling goals of New York State, they’re trying to divert, I believe that, if I recall correctly, 80% of their zero waste goals by 2022, if I remember correctly. So we kind of have so many different angles, which is why we’re incredibly fortunate, just to be working part of something that can help municipality states, and countries not only reduce their carbon emissions, help increase their domestic agricultural goals, because there’s so much more to be done with food, and then also help with how can we create jobs, meaningful manufacturing jobs that have high impact and are here to stay?
Host Raj Daniels 16:30
Well, congratulations on that win again. Can you share some of the challenges that your customers face when growing organically?
Tinia Pina 16:36
Yeah, and that’s why it took us about five to six years of r&d of just trying a number of different variables. So think of the challenge of incorporating just food waste, right? It can vary in the food waste type, it can vary in the volume. So there was variability in our raw material. And so we really had to make sure that there was consistency with the supply and consistency of the nutrient concentration that the farms would receive because they really need the reliability of what’s going to be delivered as a food or nutrient source to the plants. So that’s one.
Two is, anytime you’re working with organics, it tends to clog what can be drip lines, or a lot of times these water reservoirs because what’s happening is in a soil environment, you could easily use compost tea, because the soil is going to act as a buffer, and you have microbes such as mycorrhiza, and amongst others, that can easily break it down and do the work for the roots to easily uptake these nutrients in an immediately available format. Whereas in a hydroponic or soilless system, you don’t have those same synergies, so it lacks the microbes, it lacks the soil environment, which gives the time to break it down. You have much more need, a higher need for precision. And that precision is driven by sophisticated nutrient dosing controllers, which automate the time, the frequency, and the amount of nutrients being delivered to the plant. So you really have to be diligent on how your plants are being set up, what their environmental controls are, and what you’re delivering to it at each point in time, whether it’s by roots, or as a foliar application, which just means by the leaf.
The other problem that really kind of was prevalent with these types of farms, is that there was a lot of risks, and probably the most prevalent one, there’s a lot of risk around how can it be removed or reduced from a risk mitigation standpoint, related to food safety pathogens. So we’ve heard the national concern around E. coli and salmonella, which has largely been concentrated, unfortunately, in some of the farms that have been fields based on the west coast. I think they’re still challenged in identifying that source, whether it’s manure, or other points of contact within the supply chain, perhaps at the processing plant. But anytime you’re working with, especially something that’s manure derived, you really have to be sensitive to what was the processing controls related to pathogen kill steps. So organics can open up a diaspora of, or I trifecta is a better word, of risks. But what we spent a lot of time and commitment with r&d, which was really during our bootstrapping days, is standardizing the food waste that we work with, making sure that we’re creating a water-soluble product. So it’s actually going to be consistent when applied in these farm systems.
And third is making sure that it’s comparable it results to the synthetic fertilizer because ultimately, we really want to see a day where organic food can be price competitive, and perhaps potentially at price parity to conventionally grown food.
Host Raj Daniels 20:12
I know it’s another conversation. But you mentioned some of the challenges in the field when the E. coli. And I’m just gonna leave it at hopefully some of those farmers will improve some of the conditions for their employees that are working out there.
Tinia Pina 20:26
Agree, totally agree.
Host Raj Daniels 20:29
So I want to get to the crux of our conversation, which is the why behind what you’re doing. What drives you, what motivates you? You’ve been, I think, running Re-Nuble for about eight years, almost nine years now. What keeps you going?
Tinia Pina 20:42
That’s a good question. And not in the sense of like, I’ve questioned it, but it’s really starting off with, you had asked earlier, what’s kind of unique about me. I think, a lot of the fact that I’m so curious about spirituality, and really kind of that’s a defining point about me, is, that’s what really helped me be grounded during some very trying, depressing times.
And so I’ll start off with why I even started this. I’m not an agriculturalist. I’m not a biologist by training. I actually majored in Business Information Technology from Virginia Tech. So it’s an ag engineering school but didn’t touch the plant for four years. Came up to New York City, worked, took IT degree, worked in finance for a lot of the large banks at the time, this was right during the recession, when Lehman Brothers went down, and then spent probably about four or five years, doing pro bono volunteer work with New York Cares, nonprofit here in the city. And during that time I was running a prep SAT, pro bono class on Saturday.
So from 8 am until 3 pm, you know, I really looked at and was observing what kids were bringing for lunch, or just to consume during those days, because you’ve really got to make sure that you have all the right tools to stay up and try to keep these kids excited about a test that no one wants to take. And I felt what they were eating is a very kind of to their detriment of trying to retain information, be productive, and just really kind of be, you know, have the right type of nutrition really largely plays a factor with attention levels and productivity. And what they were bringing to these classes were oftentimes not nutrient-dense, not fresh, oftentimes, processed, and fried. And so looking at that, right, that was direct observation of well, I really want to be able to change how people are eating and more specifically in our underserved communities. Because in the bodegas, even in the supermarkets, they don’t sell nonchemical laden foods, they don’t sell organic category. And they combined with that other factor going on in the backchannel, where New York City was spending 186 million dollars to export food waste…how can we take these two pretty salient challenges and enable more farms to increase and produce organically, so thereby increasing the organic produce supply? And inherently, the price can become more affordable as a result of increased supply to others. And hopefully, for these communities where they’re not able to access it from an affordability standpoint.
I will admit, Re-Nuble will never be able to have as much impact perhaps as a nonprofit, great example, being New York Sun Works here in the city, or even Harlem Grown, where they’re actually working with kids to change their behaviors and become more educated to eat better. That, unfortunately, is not in our wheelhouse of competencies. But we do want to make it easier for whether it’s educators, nonprofits, community groups, and for-profit farms to grow organic in the same controlled reliable ways as conventional so it can be price competitive with them. Ultimately, my personal and kind of just like my path here, and this lifetime, is to create healing for the environment to create healing foods, and this is hopefully one path to, to execute on that.
Host Raj Daniels 24:36
So two questions. Why do you feel like it’s important for you to heal the environment? And those children that you were tutoring at the time, obviously, what they were eating had a lot of impact on you. Why was that?
Tinia Pina 24:56
I’ll start with the healing environment. I think there’s so many different technologies that don’t get commercialized. But they came from an intention where it is solely for the good of all. So a great example being I remember encountering a student that came up with an absorbent, it was a natural absorbent, and I can’t remember if he had used microbes or not. But during the time, when we had these severe oil spills on the Gulf Coast, this absorbant was able to basically saturate and completely remove at least 80% of the oil that had been discharged. And a lot of times there aren’t kind of like immediate kind of commercialization ways to get that out there, at least from a for-profits perspective. So if I could find ways to create a business model around that, so that is deployed more widely. You know, there are so many different applications and use cases where the environment, whether it’s for algae remediation or other types of heavy metals or chemical discharges in freshwater, I want to be able to accelerate that. But you don’t see that often in the news, if at all. I’m using my talents effectively for renewable but I want to accelerate that so that there are so many other cases where people are solely having their noble energy being invested into new technology, but are able to get it to market and it really would help the environment to make sure that our kids have the same quality of life that we do. That’s ultimately the main mission.
And then going back to the kids where I was directly teaching at Thurgood Marshall and Harlem, you know, they’re already battling so many different disadvantages. So, whether it’s access to books and not having the same technology or tutors, tutors are huge. I mean, imagine how much better they would have performed on their SAT had they had a dedicated tutor, like more, you know, let’s say better-resourced families are able to provide. And if food can be the way to help them, be more alert, and therefore retain information and perform better, then that’s I feel a lower hanging fruit that I wanted to be a part of.
Host Raj Daniels 27:19
I appreciate you sharing that and staying with SATs for a moment. You know, this year, there’s been a pause, if you will, or hold on colleges, even accepting SAT’s are saying no problem. And, again, totally another conversation, but I think that whole testing SAT, standardized testing needs to be revisited anyway.
Tinia Pina 27:45
I’m glad you mentioned that because we weren’t sure. But I totally agree with you.
Host Raj Daniels 27:57
So, nine years on this journey. You mentioned spiritual, you mentioned your why. What are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself?
Tinia Pina 28:09
I think for me, it’s making sure that I’m consistent with relationships, and those are both personal and professional. I am transparent, always an intention, first and foremost. Because I think people really appreciate that and, and that’s what has kept a lot of relationships. Again, both personal and professional as long as they happen. But more importantly, I think just being able to talk about what I stand for, and the authenticity of it, I think, has even shocked me sometimes how many more people want to support me and Re-Nuble inherently, because of that, and I don’t ever really try to share my story with a goal in mind. It’s just, you know, if I’m asked, of course, I’m going to share, but that aspect has become more resonant in the last several years. And I would encourage more people to do that. If you need help with something with a business specifically, and you’re not sure about the idea, talk about it. Talk about all the questions. You mentioned, Raj, why you’re committed to the mission. And hopefully, you realize it’s not for a quick exit. Right. It is truly genuine and, and hopefully helping others. You know, I think a lot of people gravitate towards that.
Host Raj Daniels 29:30
I agree. So speaking of mission, it’s 2025. What does the future hold for Re-Nuble?
Tinia Pina 29:37
You know, the future holds many things. I hope by then where have we have distributed facilities outside of New York. So second, being in California. Third, fourth, and fifth, you know that we’ve gotten many kinds of solicitations and inquiries to have Re-Nuble in other states. And so there’s something resonating there with municipalities around circular economy, around what are ways that we can further strengthen agricultural economies.
But to move the needle a bit further, by 2025, we really want to enable probably even more so international agricultural markets. So think of India think of, you know, saying Senegalese and in parts of the Middle East. Dubai is a great example, where they’re trying to increase their domestic production by at least 90%, sometimes by 2030, if not, by 2050. And we want to be able to help them contribute to that by using their food waste, to also help them reduce or eliminate their dependence on imported synthetic conventional fertilizer. And that would involve us having to distribute our product to their markets, and creating processes where they can take their food waste, and productize it the same way we do it here. But it allows them to create jobs that are inherent to their local economy, and also use waste resources that are local to their economy as well. And that all vary greatly from market to market. So I think, you know, there’s certainly more impact beyond the US by 2025. Now, it’s just a matter of how quickly.
If you need help with something with a business specifically, and you’re not sure about the idea, talk about it.
Host Raj Daniels 31:30
You painted a beautiful picture, and I look forward to seeing come to fruition. So last question. And you know, earlier, you mentioned consistency, and you mentioned transparency. So for those listening, that’s advice, too. But if you could share some specific words of advice or wisdom with the audience, it can be professional or personal, what would it be?
Tinia Pina 31:50
I always mess up this line. But it’s always around the notion of sending the elevator back down. Which just means if you’re fortunate, and if you’ve been given the access to resources, to relationships, networks, fill in the blank, please always remember to send it back down to others that don’t have the same privilege, because I’m a firm believer of whatever I’m doing has to have an impact for the greater good. And think everyone should have that intention inherent to everything that they do. And I think it’s just for our own survival, right? We are reaching the limits, and I don’t think some people have come to their own reckoning about it. And I think that’s the quickest and easiest and lowest hanging fruit everyone can do for that.
Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.
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