Iowa State grads are using the sun to cut global food waste

KinoSol-Iowa State University Makella and Clayton of KinoSol. Jami Milne/Special to Clay & Milk

Homework is taking a different form.

KinoSol—a three-year old Ames-based company producing solar-powered food dehydrators— has over 100 units in 20 countries but still the founders still had homework because they were students at Iowa State University.

But co-founder Mikayla Sullivan says the team is looking forward to finally working—without homework—on their company that originally started as an idea at a student business competition in September of 2014.

“The four of us that started KinoSol all had backgrounds in international development and had traveled a lot and saw the problem with global food waste,” Sullivan explains. “We wanted to tackle the issue that is already being produced, but because a third of it goes to waste, a lot of people end up going hungry. So we knew there had to be an innovative and relatively cheap solution to solve this problem.”

There was, because Sullivan, Clayton Mooney, Elise Kendall and Ella Gehrke designed it.

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A KinoSol unit during field-testing in Uganda. Photo a Special to C&M

A long-lasting battery

In December of 2016 Sullivan traveled to Thailand and saw how those rural farmers dehydrated their produce.

It wasn’t sanitary, or efficient.

“Typically in a lot of the rural communities we visited farmers layout their produce on a tarp or the dirt on the ground,” Sullivan explained. “Sometimes they have a basket but you see a lot of bugs and insects crawling all over it.”

So KinoSol designed their dehydrator be enclosed and leverage the sun to dehydrate fruit, vegetables, insects and whatever else can fit in the 450 inches of hydration space.

“It’s cool because every place we send a unit we find that there’s different foods and products they are dehydrating,” Sullivan says. “We always talked about being able to positively impact more than 1 million people around the world so if we can do that we feel like we have made some sort of impact on global food waste.”

To compliment the bulkier version that launched in January, Sullivan said they are working on a consumer product for urban lifestyles that is much smaller in size.

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Mikayla Sullivan (left) visited a school in Thailand to talk about the issue of food waste. Special to Clay & Milk.

Cyclones impact

Sullivan credits the resources at Iowa State University for helping get KinoSol off the ground.

Diana Wright, Marketing and Program Coordinator for the Iowa State University Pappajohn Center, says KinoSol and other startups can succeed in Ames because the ecosystem allows them to flourish.

“The runway for a startup is a lot longer than what people realize,” Wright says. “So having those supports and resources over the last three years for them was probably pretty crucial.”

Wright acts as a community builder and is involved with many programs, such as CYstarters—a 10-week accelerator program for ISU students or recent graduates— which KenoSol was part of.

“The Startup Ames scene, all our events are to get our community together and out of all those different silos that can occur in a college town,” Wright says. “Just get people to collide and listen to what other people are working on and can help each other. That’s the Ames group that we have.”

Domestic Prototype 6 (1)
The 6th prototype for a domestic unit.

Valuing core values

Sullivan says KinoSol did not pursue a patent because if a family in Zimbabya decides to copy their design, at least somebody is getting help.

“I think that’s still a positive,” Sullivan says. “Our goal was never to monopolize the market, we set out to help people.”

KinoSol has three core values, that are posted in bright post-it notes in Sullivan’s office: Collaboration, creativity, sustainability.

And they will be factored into every decision the group makes moving forward through expansion.

“Those come into effect when we are looking at our partnership opportunities, we don’t just partner with anyone,” Sullivan says. “We want to make sure they are doing sustainable development work and that they are not just giving handouts or doing good but really hurting and not making an impact.

We aren’t just sending technology somewhere to not be used, or we don’t want it to break and have nobody be able to fix it.”

Sullivan says they partner with Regal Plastics in Des Moines to manufacture their units and are partnering with eight different organizations to help distribute dehydrators around the world.

“By partnering with them we can scale up the amount of units we can distribute because we can overcome a lot of those cultural barriers that might be in place” Sullivan says.