These Student Entrepreneurs Are Using Worm Waste to Wriggle Their Way Into a Double-Bottom Line Business

Green Dirt

Student entrepreneur and Georgia Tech sophomore Akash Moozhayil is on a mission to turn your local restaurant food waste into the best compost out there — and he’s using worms to do it. Vermicompost, the product of the composting process using species of worms, is a highly-efficient, affordable and year-round form of composting, and Moozhavil, along with his startup team of university and high school students, have figured out a dual-revenue model where they are paid for their raw materials as well as their final products. 

40 percent of all food is wasted and thrown into landfills, where it emits harmful methane gases. By plugging into pre-existing initiatives and partnering with local restaurants, Green Dirt has found a clever way of lowering food waste and helping gardeners at the same time.

Once the compost is created, the team sells it to local nurseries and gardening enthusiasts. 

Green Dirt currently has five employees, all students, and is in the process of raising a seed round of funding after using just $35,000 to get the business off the ground. Moozhayil shares more about their composting model, challenges he’s encountered as a student founder, and their surprising B2B dual-revenue model.

What’s your pitch?

GreenDirt is focused on addressing the massive environmental impact of food waste by converting food scraps from restaurants into premium garden vermicompost. This is done by leveraging the advanced biodynamic digestive systems of worms. We then package the final product and sell worm castings to retail locations and customers.

How’d you get this idea?

Inspired by the problem of food waste, we were determined to find a feasible solution that would have a macroscopic impact. After months of research with various professors, industry experts, future customers, and a series of pivot, we realized our final business model was scalable, profitable, unique and thus would actually make a dent in the problem of food waste.

Please describe the market impact of your product.

40 percent of all food is wasted and thrown into landfills, where it emits methane gases that are 21 times more harmful than even carbon dioxide. Moreover, we are targeting gardeners that use detrimental chemical fertilizers and restaurant owners who are paying high costs simply to have their waste sent to landfills. We are essentially creating a change in culture to be more conscious of our actions and the compounding effects they can have on our environment.

Our product was extremely well received by customers, almost instantly resulting in a strong product-market fit. A supreme competitive advantage is that due to our business model, no matter where we go, we are a local product that sources from local restaurants. As we expand production in new locations with new facilities, we partner with corresponding restaurants in that area and serve corresponding garden stores in that area. In essence, we will create a national network of decentralized facilities linked to restaurants and retailers. In the gardening industry a locally sourced product is very important to the customer.

What’s your revenue model?

We have two revenue streams that support our business. On the producer end, we charge restaurants for waste collection. Restaurants usually have to pay high fees to waste collection agencies to collect their food scraps, only to have it thrown away. However, because we input food waste into our business model as raw material, we can charge a lower price for the same waste collection and thus get paid for our materials. Additionally, we receive most of our revenue from the sale of the finished product. We package our worm castings in 1.4 lb custom-designed bags that we sell to garden centers and nurseries. We also retail directly to consumers at trade shows, farmers markets and off our website, through which we ship for free anywhere in the U.S.

Who are your competitors and how do you stand out?

Our competitors are firms supplying alternative types of compost and fertilizers. On the food waste end, we compete with traditional waste collection agencies. Firstly, we are superior due to the vermicomposting process. Worm castings have several benefits that chemical fertilizers and even organic compost don’t. Furthermore, our product is superior to even typical worm castings due to our sourcing for worm feed. While most producers use animal waste or cow manure, we use organic food scraps, resulting in a more nutritious product that also helps the environment. We conducted certified lab testing on our product through the University of Illinois’s Agriculture Extension — our results returned that we were Very Rich in 14+ critical gardening elements. We also conducted controlled A-B testing on our product with other market standards, and plants that used GreenDirt were the first to sprout and highest in growth and yield.  

On top of this, GreenDirt is odorless and easy-to-use, which has been a major problem for indoor gardeners using mushroom compost or manure. On the food waste collection end, restaurants have been energized by the cost savings as well as the positive image that comes along with their green initiative.

What are the challenges you’ve encountered as a student startup founder?

The greatest challenges that come with being a student startup is entering a variety of specialized industries that require years of experience all at once. Most people who enter entrepreneurship start with a lot of industry experience and the connections that come with it. The trick to this is doing as much research as possible early on and keeping an open mind that will allow for critical adjustments and pivos. Of course, balancing a school schedule and 80+ hours of startup life every week is nearly impossible. Therefore, it’s vital to find a multi-faceted team whose skills complement each other, allowing for efficient and effective progress.

What are some lessons you’ve learned as you grow your business that may be helpful for others?

Things can go wrong at the worst time possible. It is necessary to always be prepared months in advanced, have several fail-safes put into place, while also remaining resourceful and creative. Ultimately, there is no way around hard work and perseverance. Likewise, always devote your total energy into testing and vetting out ideas, regardless of how rudimentary, because during the process you might find an even better pivot just like we did.  

What’s next for Green Dirt?

We are raising a round to rapidly expand production and sales based on our success with our first machine and selling season. Using the strategic partnerships developed through this investment, we want to maximize our revenue streams, while making expansion a more seamless process.

Currently our 1800 square foot facility in Arlington Heights, Illinois has one large-scale vermicomposting system. This system houses 120,000 red wiggler worms that are actively producing 200 lbs of worm castings daily. Our facility has a capacity of five systems. By the end of the next year we want to fill that facility to capacity. Then we will continue obtaining facilities throughout the Chicagoland area, always collecting local food waste and selling locally. Then we will replicate this process throughout the country: Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, etc.

Wesley Samples is a leader of Georgia Tech’s Startup Exchange program, the student-led community of entrepreneurs. Startup Exchange CORE is an exclusive, founders-only group that represents the entrepreneurial talent within Startup Exchange.