Listen to your customer. We could have done a better job of listening more and more closely to our customers. If we had, we would have realized that an automated sensor was better than a manual (though digital) clipboard, much sooner — a great insight that took us years longer than it needed to.

Ithas been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than 160 billion dollars worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Manik Suri.

Manik Suri is the Founder and CEO of technology company Therma. Before founding Therma, Manik co-founded the Governance Lab (GovLab), an innovation center at NYU that developed technology solutions to improve government. He is a former Affiliate of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and has held positions at global investment firm D.E. Shaw & Company and the White House National Economic Council.

Manik holds an A.B. in Government summa cum laude from Harvard College, an M.Phil in International Relations (Highest Honors) from Cambridge University, where he studied as Harvard University’s annual Paul Williams Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he earned numerous Dean’s Scholar commendations. He is admitted to the California Bar, has published in leading academic journals, edited volumes, and national media outlets.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sure! It’s a pleasure to be here, and thanks again for having me. I sometimes joke with my friends that I’m a recovering lawyer, so I talk too much — don’t hold that against me.

I didn’t start my career in tech and didn’t expect to become an entrepreneur when I was younger. Early on, I thought I was going to be a public interest lawyer or policymaker. During my third year of law school at Harvard, I was working on a legal aid clinic focused on consumer rights in Boston. I was out in the field, building cases with city health inspectors and realized there was a lot of inefficiency in the way that health and safety codes were complied with and enforced. Imagine folks walking around with thick binders of legal code, documenting notes on clipboards, and manually performing dozens of safety checks every day.

Meanwhile, software was eating the world and transforming how we dine, date, and socialize in so many ways. It seemed that there was a massive opportunity to build technology that could improve compliance with health and safety requirements and save businesses time and money in the process. I decided to launch a startup focused on these challenges, and around that time, Chipotle was struggling with a series of food safety crises. That’s when we realized there was a major opportunity to build better tools for the 1 trillion dollars food industry. That’s how I got started as a tech entrepreneur working to improve safety and quality across the food supply chain.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

The most interesting thing that happened was in the summer of 2019. We were watching users in local restaurants using our original product, a mobile workflow app that replaces pen and paper with a digital clipboard. As we thought about ways to improve our product, we realized that automating certain daily tasks, particularly checking the holding temperature for food — using sensors was a much better way of solving the problem.

That insight led us to build an IOT sensor-based “temperature, humidity, energy, remote monitoring application” called Therma°. Eventually shifted our focus from food safety to food waste. With Therma°, our customers were able to monitor their refrigeration continuously in order to avoid food spoilage, improve energy efficiency, and reduce equipment downtime which is associated with refrigerant leaks, all of which are major sources of global warming. That’s ultimately how we transitioned from compliance to climate.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we were first starting, we were a small team. I was leading sales directly myself. During one of my first sales meetings, I sat down across the room from a group of prospective customers and proceeded to tell them all about our vision to help improve food safety while reducing food waste from farm to fork. They seemed engaged and proceeded to ask me for a product demonstration. I was about to launch into a detailed walkthrough, ready to show off our newest bells and whistles. At that point, my laptop died, and I discovered I’d forgotten my charger; I didn’t have a backup of the presentation, and no one in the room had an equivalent charger. They weren’t amused, and needless to say, it was a short meeting. I had flown across the country for this meeting, and we didn’t get a second chance with that account. On the flight home, I promised myself I would never repeat that performance. It taught me to practice like it’s the game and see new value in a phrase my mom used to repeat, “always be prepared”!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is about inspiring others to believe in themselves and the power of working together to achieve the seemingly impossible. In March 2020, amidst the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, we were facing stiff odds as we launched our new Therma° product into a very challenging economy. Most of our customers across restaurants, hospitality, and retail were struggling with lockdowns and massive uncertainty as COVID hit the economy hard. Meanwhile, we were launching an unproven new solution with no track record.

We had investor capital committed a month prior, but our funding suddenly dried up last March, and we had less than a month of runway remaining. I sat down with our team and discussed the situation — not a single team member suggested quitting. Over the next few weeks, I worked with my team closely during a series of intense days and nights to build a new business plan, secure funding, and live to fight another day. Eventually, we were able to deploy and scale thousands of Therma° sensors despite the pandemic. Today, we are growing rapidly and have successfully raised multiple rounds of funding; this year is looking to be our best ever.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A mentor of mine once said to me, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I return to this lesson often. We often feel paralyzed by indecision, particularly when leading organizations through uncertainty. And there is so much we don’t know at any given time. I love this quote because it speaks to the power of taking action and accepting that so much is beyond our knowledge and control, but the first, most important, step is making a decision.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?

Food waste is one of these major global problems that’s hard to get our heads around because the numbers are so large as to be almost impossible to grasp.

In 2021, despite all of the modern technological advancements we enjoy, you may find it astounding to know that we still throw out approximately 1/3 of all the food we produce across the planet. According to the Boston Consulting Group, which has published an oft-cited study on the topic, we throw out 1.6 billion tons of food worth nearly 1.5 trillion dollars every year. Beyond the economic impact, food waste is contributing to our climate crisis in a big way — amidst record temperatures and extreme weather events ranging from flash floods to droughts, food waste is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions today. If it were a country, food waste would be the 3rd largest emitter. And yet, at the same time, nearly 900 million people around the world are chronically undernourished, which is both sad and disturbing given how much food never makes it from farm to fork.

Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?

There are multiple sources of food waste, but the biggest factors are weak and inefficient supply chain infrastructure, uninformed consumption decisions, and poor coordination between stakeholders across the food supply chain. For example, a huge percentage of the world’s perishable foods would last longer if they were kept in adequate refrigeration, but the “cold chain” (the sectors of the supply chain that preserve and transport perishable goods) is virtually nonexistent in many developing countries, and even in developed markets there are massive and recurring spoilage events caused by manual processes, under-optimized infrastructure, and aging equipment.

What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?

Some of the challenges around distributing excess food products involve the lack of effective marketplaces for local supply and demand to be easily coordinated. Without the ability to quickly and efficiently identify where to donate your extra product, many businesses will simply sell it. Additionally, the regulatory environment around food donation laws sometimes penalizes rather than supports food donation — this requires policy changes at the local and state level to encourage donation under “Good Samaritan” practices.

Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?

Therma has developed a 24/7 smart refrigeration monitoring solution that helps businesses catch food spoilage events early and often — enabling organizations to save thousands of dollars worth of inventory every year and avoid expensive and unnecessary food waste.

Our IoT-sensor based platform enables restaurants, convenience stores, hotels, and retailers to monitor their food inventory and ensure that valuable product doesn’t have to end up getting thrown out as part of the “cost of doing business,” due to power outages, equipment malfunctions, and human error, which can contribute to thousands of pounds of food waste on average per location each year.

We’ve deployed more than 5,000 Therma sensors with operators of leading brands including McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Marriott Hotels, and Now Foods, amongst others, driving a meaningful reduction in food waste across locations in nearly every state in the US.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?

  1. Create broader awareness of the food waste crisis. A majority of our customer base, just like a majority of consumers, doesn’t realize that they have a food waste problem. Among business owners, most locations aren’t tracking food waste and have been using the same refrigeration equipment, inventory management systems, and oversight processes for years. When they install Therma°, they discover that their aging infrastructure has been causing food to spoil unnecessarily and realize they are throwing away hundreds, and even thousands of dollars, in preventable food waste.
  2. Provide financial incentives to reduce food waste and protect food. Currently, it’s very inexpensive to dispose of food, and there are few financial consequences (positive or negative) around food waste. We should consider tax policies that encourage companies and consumers to reduce their food waste while providing better financing options for businesses to retrofit equipment and upgrade their infrastructure to reduce food waste.
  3. Invest in better storage and transportation. We face a huge shortfall of adequate cold chain storage and transit infrastructure in many parts of the world, leading to tens of billions in food waste, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. Better coordination of public policy and government funding with private investment and innovation could catalyze rapid development of new cold chain infrastructure alongside improvements in existing assets, which would help reduce product spoilage and waste, including in some of the fast-growing markets globally.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Listen to your customer. We could have done a better job of listening more and more closely to our customers. If we had, we would have realized that an automated sensor was better than a manual (though digital) clipboard, much sooner — a great insight that took us years longer than it needed to.
  2. Always hire the best people, no matter how hard it is. When you’re an early-stage organization, there’s a tendency to think you have to compromise on quality, particularly because it’s hard to hire great talent when you have no product, no capital, and little traction. But people are your most valuable resource, and I think exceptional people make the difference between tremendous success and any other path.
  3. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. The future is uncertain, and it’s impossible to predict how things will unfold. Every single time I raised capital, experienced entrepreneurs and advisors said, “Raise as much as you can because you don’t know when you’ll be able to next.” This was pre-COVID, but our experience nearly running out of runway in early 2020 was a sobering reminder that so much is outside your control as an entrepreneur that it helps to have as many resources on hand as possible, which requires preparing for the worst even as you hope and inspire others to believe in the best outcome possible.
  4. It takes longer than you think, so think “marathon, not sprint”. As a first-time entrepreneur, I figured the path to success was linear and defined by a series of clear and connected steps. Then I learned that things take longer to build, sales are tougher to close than you think, great people are harder to recruit than you intend, and new markets take longer to open up than you expect. The reality is that building organizations are tough, and changing the status quo takes a lot of time, energy, and effort, definitely more of each than I had envisioned when I got started. After two and a half years of working on a product, we discovered that the bigger opportunity we faced required a different product and new skill sets, which added years to the journey and ultimately made it more rewarding!
  5. Work on something that matters — to you. When you’re approaching a new venture at the outset, the sheer amount of work, and the sweat and tears that lie ahead, can be daunting. While working on Therma, I’ve learned that startups are emotional roller-coasters, and the highs that come from unexpected successes are often accompanied (sometimes in the same day!) by serious setbacks and outright failures. What I’ve discovered that sustains me through the hardest moments is reminding myself of my purpose, advancing our company’s mission to protect our food and planet. Knowing the reason that I wake up every day and get back to work helps put both our successes and setbacks in perspective. Finding your motivation, whatever that may be, will help motivate you when the inevitable challenges come up. Approach the journey with a commitment to your vision, and you’ll find it rewarding even if the path takes you on unexpected twists and turns.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

I’m always impressed by change-makers who are taking on large, seemingly intractable problems with novel approaches or innovative solutions. A friend of mine, Christine Moseley, is the founder and CEO of Full Harvest, a startup that has achieved considerable success working on creating markets for imperfect produce — “ugly” fruits and vegetables that would have been thrown out due to their look, but that have nutritive value and are fine to consume. I love what Christine has done to repurpose and redirect a source of food waste into a meaningful source of value stream for producers, distributors and consumers.

Dana Gunders, the Executive Director of ReFED, is another great example of a mission-driven leader who is catalyzing awareness of the food waste crisis. Dana’s organization ReFED is bringing public and private sector leaders together to help advance data-driven solutions to food loss and waste.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would encourage every single person to think about the climate impact of their daily actions and consumption decisions, from what they eat, to the clothes they wear and how they travel. There is no bigger challenge we face than climate change, and it’s going to take a consumer-driven revolution in how and what we consume to drive companies and governments to change how they do business and set the rules of the road.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Barack Obama, hands down. I’ve always admired thinker-doers who can move between thought and action, and few in our time have done that as well as President Obama. To me, he embodies the Gandhian mantra, “be the change you want to see in the world,” and he has made an impact while maintaining grace under pressure, the highest personal integrity, and an incredibly positive attitude.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We would love to have folks who are interested in combating food waste check out our technology tools by visiting our website at, or follow us and help amplify our message by searching from Therma° on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Feel free to reach out to us directly at [email protected] if you’re interested in learning more about our company, our team, or getting involved in the fight to save our food and our planet!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

Thank you for having me! It’s been a pleasure to be part of this conversation.