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Alberta Yield: GroundUp giving new life to spent food materials

When Shawn Leggett looks back at the evolution of his company’s products, it went from something you put in a campfire to something you can eat.

It’s all based around the idea of upcycling products and rounding out the corners on a circular economy in Alberta.

After 22-years in the oil and gas industry, Leggett was looking for something different. Things weren’t looking too promising in that field.

“I had ideas on what I wanted to develop as far as a company as far as culture and everything else,” he said.

“I wanted to be something that was unique and I wanted to bring something new.”

The early days of Okotoks-based GroundUp Eco-ventures were focused on the use of organic waste to create energy logs. Leggett said it was very low cost but also very low revenue.

Then, he saw companies were using coffee oil to create biodiesel fuel and using leftover grounds for the fire logs. After researching biodiesel, Leggett saw that there wasn’t much of a market for it because fuel prices in Canada were comparatively low.

“But then we found out that the oil can be used in cosmetics and skincare. And nobody in Canada is upcycling coffee grounds,” he said.

Further research showed the exceptional nutritional value of coffee.

“It’s fantastic as a food ingredient,” he said.

Coffee grounds and spent grains and beyond

GroundUp takes the coffee grounds from area shops and turns it into flour for food products. It’s gluten free, low fat, low sugar and high fibre, Leggett said.  It was a readily available source that was otherwise being thrown away.

“What just fell inside of that really well was upcycling spent grains from microbreweries,” Leggett said.

“They have a problem of getting rid of their waste. It costs them money and the brewing process actually makes it a better flour. It marries really well with what we’re doing.”

The work was ongoing to fine tune a process that would allow them to extract what they needed for the flour and do it as a cost that made the consumer output affordable.

For now, Leggett said they’re focused on the coffee and spent-grain flours, but as they’ve learned, there’s shortage of products potentially upcycled in the food industry.

“There’s a lot of industries that that take a feedstock like barley or like coffee, they produce one item, and then the rest is thrown away,” he said.

He said only 25 to 30 per cent of brewing grains are used and only about one per cent of the coffee beans.  Even potato feedstock for fries results in a 20 to 30 per cent waste.

Even carrots. Baby carrots.

“So when you look at when you think about how much beer is brewed, and how much coffee is brewed in Canada, the amount of waste is significant,” he said.

“The amount of normal and unique food ingredients that provide healthy food for people… it’s amazing how much we just throw away.”

Building for the future

Coming from a background in oil and gas, the Alberta Yield program came up at the right time for Leggett. It was the perfect opportunity for him to meet others in the food and agri-tech industries.

“To be able to take part in a program, to meet other entrepreneurs and be able to get advice and wisdom and have a resource of people that are already there is so beneficial because you have so many questions,” he said.

Leggett’s gained knowledge on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alberta Health Services and he said you don’t realize how much information is out there.

He said it’s all given him insight into how to build better marketing and distribution channels.

It’s also a business of economies of scale; how does he get more than 10 pounds of coffee grounds or a couple piles of spent grains.

He needs the spent material to feed a growing business. Right now, GroundUp has a handful of products: The two flour types (coffee, spent grains), coffee-flour pancake mix, Born Again Brownies and coffee oil.

They’re going to be fully commercial by the end of April, he said.

Then, the plan is to take the business and duplicate it elsewhere. There are coffee shops and breweries across Canada, after all.

“Wherever there’s a market to support it, that’s what we’re focused on,” Leggett said.

(Website is still under construction for GroundUp)