Nest co-founder Matt Rogers’ new startup is trash

“This is the next 20 years of my life. This is not like, build the company in four or five years and sell to Google. This is a big, long journey.”

Matt Rogers, who co-founded Nest with Tony Fadell back in 2010, was talking about his new startup, and he thinks it’ll be big. He’s probably right, but it’s also trash, in a way.

Today, Rogers, co-founder Harry Tannenbaum and the rest of the team at Mill Industries are launching their first product. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, maybe a sleek trash can. That’s not an unfair assessment, but the Mill bin is a lot more than just a receptacle.

Mill’s kitchen bin gobbles up food scraps, dries them out and grinds them to bits overnight. It also neutralizes odors with a charcoal filter. When the bin is full, Mill automatically mails a box to return the waste back to the company, where it’s cleaned, sifted, pasteurized and bagged to be sold as chicken feed to farmers.

The goal is to eliminate the climate impact of food waste.

“This feels like the most tractable of all climate problems,” Rogers said. “We don’t need to invent nuclear fusion. We don’t need to figure out how to build a low weight aviation fuel. It’s just like, don’t put food in the trash.”

Food waste is a big problem, literally and figuratively. About 1.3 billion metric tons of edible food is wasted every year, about a third of total production. The food system as a whole generates just under a third of global carbon emissions, which means that wasted food represents about 6% to 8% of all greenhouse gas pollution.

In the U.S., about half of food waste occurs after people bring it home from the store or a restaurant. It might consist of scraps scraped off a plate, produce that’s gone bad or leftovers forgotten in a corner of the fridge. Most people throw their food waste in the trash or put it down the disposal. In either case, it decomposes and generates plenty of pollution, much of it methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet 86 times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over 20 years.

Mill estimates that its system can save the average household about 520 kilograms (1,146 pounds) of carbon emissions every year.

To arrive at that figure, the team did a thorough lifecycle analysis before launch. It estimated the amount of emissions that would be avoided by reducing both landfill waste and the amount of chicken feed it’ll generate. Then it subtracted emissions generated by making the bin and running it, shipping the waste and transforming it into chicken feed. Mill said that after it gets real-world data, it’ll revisit the numbers to provide a more accurate assessment.

Rogers was careful to emphasize that Mill’s system is not composting. In composting, food waste gets broken down slowly by microbes. In Mill’s bin, it’s simply dried and ground. “No composting, no digestion. It is literally dried food,” he said. At Mill’s facility, the only processing that occurs is to ensure the dried food is safe for chickens to eat. “It is much faster and cheaper than running a commercial composting facility today.”

Rogers and Tannenbaum have been working on Mill since 2020 when they were locked down in the early days of the pandemic. Rogers wrote the first check, though today the company has received investments from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, Prelude Ventures, Energy Impact Partners, Google Ventures, John Doerr and others. (The company is not disclosing its funding or valuation, saying only that it has “raised enough money to weather the current financial environment.”)

Early on, the small team met every day over Zoom, discussing research papers and what they had learned talking with food waste experts.

“What’s cool about starting a company during COVID lockdowns is no one could say they’re on vacation,” Rogers said. “We could send an email to a professor at the University of Washington or an EPA official, and they would answer! We had great access to experts and advisers and research. We learned a lot really quickly.”

The real breakthrough, though, happened when Mill, then known as Chewie Labs, approached the U.S. Postal Service about collecting food waste from customers.

“We tried and experimented with everything,” Rogers said. “Do we have someone locally come and pick it up? Do we drive our own truck? Do we ask one of our customers to be like the champion of their neighborhood? Do we do drop-off? Then we’re like, oh, can we ask the mail?”

The team did, and USPS was happy to make a deal. The mail service has been struggling with declining volume in recent years, and like most delivery services, its last-mile trucks usually leave full and return empty. Mill’s boxes would fill empty trucks on their way back to the post office, much like Netflix DVDs did 15 years ago.

The service costs $33 per month when billed annually (monthly will cost a bit more), and it includes everything customers need, from the bin itself to charcoal filters, boxes and return shipping labels. Bins should start shipping this spring. Customers can cancel anytime and return shipping of the bin is included, though unused months or days aren’t refunded. Sales of the chicken feed help to defray costs. Compared with compost collection services, the subscription is at the high end, but it’s not unreasonable.

This being a Silicon Valley startup, there’s an app, of course. It not only lets customers manage their membership but also tracks how much food they’ve wasted and how much carbon emissions they’ve avoided by sending their scraps to Mill.

Mill’s unique business model has attracted a wide range of talent to its team, now about 100 strong. Rogers estimated that employees’ priors are split between consumer electronics companies like Apple and Nest, logistics companies like Uber and Lyft, and the waste management industry.

“It’s a good mix of people who have never done it before and people who’ve done it for their whole career,” he said.

The one thing that connects them all, Rogers added, is that they are all “climate-driven.” “If they’re the best at what they do and they could care less about climate, we end up probably not hiring them.”

So far, that hasn’t kept Mill from finding talent. “People today want to work on climate change. They want to have an impact. We had people leave their dream jobs at Apple, Google, Facebook — you name it — to come work on climate.”