Rachelle McCray’s various former roles, from Miss Arizona to NFL cheerleader to host of a QVC show, have set her up for her newest endeavor as the founder of a startup tackling food waste.
The Phoenix, Arizona, native and Wilmington resident founded Wisely Inc. in 2021. The company’s origin comes from what she describes as a problem in her kitchen prompting her to seek a solution.
“I had just gotten married, and I was only cooking for two people. I found that I would go to the grocery store, and I would come home with the same items I already had. Things were getting shoved in the back of the fridge, and I couldn’t remember when we put away the leftovers,” McCray said. “I was frustrated because I don’t like throwing food away. It stresses me out. It makes me feel guilty; it also makes me feel like I’m wasting money, time and energy.”
That’s when she started searching for a way to track her leftovers.
“When I went looking for a way to track my leftovers, there wasn’t a good solution available,” she said. “So, I went to work on trying to figure out how and what made sense.”
Wisely creates a smart, food storage container system with the goal of reducing food waste. The first iteration of the product is aimed at helping consumers track their perishables and their dietary habits.
What makes the containers “smart” is the use of hardware, software and IoT sensors.
“We have a smart storage container that you can use in your kitchen to track the time your leftovers have been stored. We also took our product one step further by adding a software product, known as our companion app, which enables users to see what’s going on with their leftovers when they’re not in the kitchen,” McCray said. “And then we have the IoT sensors that are helping us track what’s actually going on inside of your storage container.”
One key issue Wisely helps solve is the lack of knowledge people have of what is in their fridge and when leftovers were placed there. McCray said this often leads people to not eat leftovers before they go bad or throw away food that is still safe to eat.
“We’re going to help save you money so you're not going to the store more than needed and spending more money on groceries when you can eat what is in your fridge,” she said. “We’re going to help you so that you have visibility not only in your kitchen but also when you’re away from home.”
By helping reduce food waste, Wisely also tackles environmental issues that come with waste, including greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the 2020 article “Estimating Food Waste as Household Production Inefficiency,” published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the average U.S. household wastes 32% of the food it buys, a loss of about $240 billion a year.
Discarded food not only undermines the producing, processing, transporting, preparing and storing that was required for food to reach homes – contributing to greenhouse gas emissions – it generates methane when it ends up in landfills, according to an article by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For this impact, Wisely has received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I funding through the Environmental Protection Agency. The startup is in the middle of phase I, which provides proof of concept for a startup’s technology. After completing this phase, Wisely is eligible for phase II, which is aimed at helping develop and commercialize the technology.
As an SBIR recipient, the company received a matching grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce. Most recently, the company was announced as a recipient of the ReFED Catalytic Grant Fund, an initiative providing nonprofit and for-profit organizations with investments to “de-risk and scale high-impact solutions to food waste.”
McCray has participated in the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps entrepreneurial training program, which she said looked at consumers, something she gained experience at QVC.
“I got to see how many different types of consumer products work, why as consumers, we choose to use some of the things we do, and why we buy what we buy. And I was able to take a lot of what I learned and apply that to being a founder of a consumer product company,” she said.
The patent-pending storage system is slated to be available for preorder to consumers starting in January 2024 with products arriving in early spring of that year. Currently, the company is working with a beta version and on user studies.
While this first product tackles food waste at home, McCray has plans to develop an agricultural application to track food waste on farms.
After years of research and development, she is looking forward to getting the products into the hands of consumers.
“I think the greatest joy for me,” McCray said, “is going to be actually shipping the final product and sending them to each customer that wants to try our innovation for the very first time.”
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