01 KITRO – reducing food waste with artificial intelligence – a success story
Did you know that about 500 000 tons of food are wasted every year in Switzerland, three quarters of which are still entirely fit to eat?
According to the Federal Office for Environment (Bundesamt für Umwelt BAFU) this accounts for 14% of the entire Swiss food output. With food shortages and proper waste management being some of the most important issues of our time, a wastefulness of this scale is unacceptable, especially for a progressive country such as Switzerland.
We met with Naomi MacKenzie, former EHL student and one of the cofounders of KITRO, to discuss her approach on reducing food waste with sophisticated AI technology and learn more about her startup story.
What is KITRO?
KITRO is an automated food waste management system for restaurants and canteens. It works by placing a camera unit above, and a weight sensor below your trash can and thereby allowing you to precisely monitor how much food is being wasted. A machine learning algorithm then recognizes the specific type of food in the bin. All the data gets collected, processed and summarized in a biweekly analytics report, which tells you how to optimize your waste management. As proven by fourteen pilot projects in Switzerland the technology can not only decrease food waste by 40 percent but also save restaurant up to 24 000 Swiss Francs per year - a change which actually makes a substantial difference.
How it all started
“We had to throw away perfectly edible food every day, so we experienced the problem first hand”, Naomi explained what it was like to work in the kitchens of École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), the school she and the other cofounder Anastasia Hofmann went to. When asked to participate in a voluntary video competition on sustainable food and beverage concepts in 2025, the two decided to take action on the issue of food waste and came up with their first concept, setting the ground stone for what KITRO is today.
After graduating from EHL, Naomi and Anastasia took multiple side jobs just to come by and save money for KITRO, back then called Smart_Kitchen. While doing so they continually pitched their startup idea to various restaurants, canteens and hotels, trying to take their endeavor to the next level, but struggling to find their first clients. It all changed with Zurich burger place and favorite among ETH students, Holy Cow. “We approached Holy Cow with nothing but an A4 sheet of paper. There were no actual facts on it besides the data we have received from the market and offering free installation and training.” Nevertheless, the restaurant chain accepted their proposal and told them to start in April. This was in February 2017, which left them with just 2 months to come up with a working product.
“We had no idea of how to build a machine or a scale. We didn’t know what technology we were going to use. Back then we didn’t even know what machine learning was.”
In desperate search for somebody to help them with the technical execution of their idea, Naomi and Anastasia ended up at Unicorn Labs, an ETH startup that develops prototypes for companies lacking the technical prowess to do so themselves. Since they also just started, they were looking for their first clients – the perfect match, especially since KITRO only had to cover the material cost, which allowed them to afford it in the first place. Despite the restrictive deadline to develop the prototype and the makeshift software, the system worked and could be implemented at Holy Cow. The first milestone.
From EC Award to Rocket Hub
To further raise money and attention for their startup, the two entrepreneurs then applied to various Swiss startup competitions out there, including our Entrepreneur Club Award. Its goal is to challenge participants on many levels in order to select the most interesting and innovative ideas and reward the winners with funding and support – exactly what KITRO needed. After a thought provoking Polybahn pitch, they came in third in the EC Award 2017. They received prizemoney and a spot in the Rocket Hub, our coworking space.
Naturally, the synergy with the other entrepreneurs in the Rocket Hub and the regular legal and business counselling, they received there, acted as a catalyst for KITRO’s growth and success. “The Rocket Hub is especially valuable for young startups as it changes the way you work and interact”, Naomi pointed out. During that time the team grew in size as well: In addition to Wiliam Downey, who became responsible for business development earlier, Tarek Jost joined as a software developer and Dominic Mösch started working as a project engineer.
The year they spent in the coworking space enabled them to develop in various aspects of their business. By producing limited numbers of prototypical hardware units and directly testing them in their multiple pilot projects, KITRO could verify their functionality and real-life performance while still being able to keep the costs to a minimum. These test runs highlighted unforeseen problems quickly and allowed ongoing and rapid progress. Moving into their own personal office ten days prior to the publication of this blog post, KITRO is now in the final stage of development with a new product release scheduled for mid 2019.
Rules for success
What made all of this possible? “A huge part [of our success] has been luck.” Without trying to discredit the hard work of the KITRO team, a few lucky coincidences definitely propelled them to where they are now: Holy Cow forced them to come up with a working prototype in very limited time, but also gave them the confidence they needed, being the first ones to believe in their idea.
Without Unicorn Labs they would have never been able to fulfill the technical demands of this first pilot project and would probably not have ended up as participants of the EC Award.
Furthermore, getting the chance to work in the Rocket Hub and taking advantage of all its benefits, naturally pushed them to their current position.
In addition, their lucky timing was important. “We were very fortunate. We picked the right product at the right time.” The relevance of food waste in the presence of todays increased consciousness towards sustainability and the environment, as well as the incorporation of very recent technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence helped them raise interest, attract clients and made the company flourish.
Despite all the luck and the supportive environment starting a company is always difficult. “There were definitely many things we could have done better and do better now, but we would not know how, unless we made those mistakes. We are happy for all the mistakes we made.”, Naomi reflected back at her journey at KITRO. “As long as we learn from them and make sure they do not happen again, they are valuable to our evolution. […] Looking back, we would not do anything differently.”
This shows that success is less about detailed planning and being prepared for everything but rather about having a vision, being determined and “saying yes to every opportunity”. Without technical background, no profound business knowledge, almost no funding, no clients and no diversified team, Naomi and Anastasia still accomplished to build up a working tech-startup through sheer dedication and a talent to turn the odds in their favor. So, what is keeping you from realizing your dreams? If they can do it, you can do it. Dream it. Do it.
If you are passionate about sustainability and technology or want to help them achieve their future goals, checkout KITRO’s website and become a part of the team.