Life is too short to have regrets or unfinished businesses. If you want something then go get it or else you might end up torturing yourself by thinking what you could have achieved only if you took actions towards it. I, personally, try not to have any regrets. In case I actually feel like doing something, I end up doing it.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Somdip Dey, an embedded Artificial Intelligence scientist at the University of Essex & CEO of Nosh Technologies, an award-winning food tech company offering AI-powered food management to reduce food waste in the household. Somdip is a serial entrepreneur and also a TEDx speaker and has 10+ years of experience in developing cutting-edge technologies, including contracts with Microsoft & Samsung Electronics. He also serves as a technical program committee member and reviewer of several top technical conferences such as AAAI, CVPR, ICCV, ECCV and ASAP.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Globally, 821 million people are hungry, which means roughly one in nine people go to bed hungry. Despite so much hunger around the globe 1.3 billion tons of food, which is approximately 1/3 of the total food production, is wasted globally. These food wastes end up in the landfill, which again harms the environment due to the release of greenhouse gases.
My experience with hunger happened in 2014. In 2013, I came to the UK from India to pursue my MSc. In 2014, during my MSc, my parents went through a car accident back in India, which paralyzed my father. Without even given a second thought I sent all my savings to my family to support the medical bills through this tough time. After sending all the savings I realized that I had no money to buy food at my home in the UK to survive that week and have to wait till the end of the week to get paid from my job. In order to survive, I ended up dumpster diving and to my surprise, I found unopened packs of apples, oranges and canned foods, which barely expired. I survived that week on edible food found in the garbage. Through this experience, I realized that people throw away leftovers, which are perfectly edible, whereas, many people, living close-by might be going to bed hungry. Fast forward to December 2014, as part of a hackathon group, Codeepy, I co-developed an award-winning application, the world’s first crowd food sharing platform, where people can share their leftovers with people who need them. This technology inspired many entrepreneurs around the world to adopt the same to reduce food waste in the community. I thought this might help reduce food waste around the world, however, since 2014 the food waste statistics haven’t changed drastically. Then it occurred to me, maybe we are not effectively dealing with food waste at an individual level in the household and I started to explore ways to effectively manage an individual’s food waste using technology.
In 2018, I joined the University of Essex, UK, as a PhD student where my research focused on designing and developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) in embedded/mobile platforms. This year when the COVID-19 pandemic started, people started to panic-buy a lot of food items to reduce the number of times they have to go shopping. This also meant that people ran the risk of having more food waste in the household as they adapt to new shopping routines. Through my experience in the industry, one thing was evident: almost everyone now has a smartphone and relies heavily on them. To resolve the challenge of wasting food at home during the lockdown due to the pandemic, my team, a group of computer scientists from the University of Essex joined forces with colleagues in India to develop an AI-powered smartphone app, nosh, capable of reminding households of the expiry date of the stocked items before they expire while also suggesting recipes on the stocked items. AI in the nosh — food stock management app learns the user’s food buying and wasting habits and then informs the user such that the user can make a better decision on what food products to buy the next time to reduce food waste. Right after the initial launch of our app we got really positive responses and feedback from our users, with more than one thousand active users across Android and iOS platforms in our first month of launch. The positive response and feedback from our users gave us hope and confidence to move forward with our idea on using AI to help reduce food waste at an individual level in the household. Me and my colleague, Suman Saha, from India co-founded Nosh Technologies based on the nosh app to reinvent the ways we can reduce food waste at home.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
At Nosh Technologies we are using state-of-the-art research from AI, blockchain, mobile edge and cloud computing to revamp the agri-food industry. With the latest applicative research, we are trying to develop a virtual window to the kitchen for our users such that they are more aware of what is going on in their kitchen and how they can manage it more effectively to reduce food waste. Our motto is “Convenience comes first”. Some of our disruptive technologies in the form of applicative research are as follows.
AI: We have developed an industry-leading AI algorithm into the nosh app, where the AI learns from the user’s food buying and wasting habits such that the user can make an informed decision on what food products to buy the next time to reduce food waste at home.
Computer Vision-based AI: We have developed several computer vision-based AI algorithm to make it easy for our users to enter the bought food items into their stocked items list in nosh. This includes scanning receipts or using a camera to detect what items have been bought so that the items could be easily imported into the app without the need to type in each item individually.
Blockchain: We have developed a novel methodology to make tracking and verifying food supply chain using blockchain and QR code. Using blockchain the information of food supply chain can be made easily verifiable and using QR code to make that information on the food item easily accessible to the user. In this way, the user can trace information about the food product that they are buying, can make easy payment using their smartphone and at the same time also enables them to automatically track the expiry/best before dates of the bought items.
Power-efficient Edge Computing: Given the fact that the nosh app is using such state-of-the-art AI algorithms, which are usually very computationally expensive and power-hungry, we have developed novel in-app resource management solutions leveraging the latest Edge Computing methodologies to make the nosh app one of the most power-efficient app in your smartphone. Despite having the latest AI methodologies running inside nosh, it consumes very less energy so that you can keep using nosh for a long period of time.
We have already published some of our intellectual properties/applicative research output in top journals and conferences. To read more about our disruptive technologies you can go to https://nosh.tech/research.html
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?
It’s not really a mistake but definitely a story to learn from. Initially, as scientists and engineers, we developed the nosh app to help people to reduce food waste in the household during the pandemic. We didn’t just start off as a company but as a bunch of engineers and scientists. Initially, nosh was just a simple smartphone app to help you through this tough time. After getting a huge positive response from the community Suman and I finally decided to go forward and build a company based on the app to develop better features and services for our users and the community. However, that gave rise to jealousy among some of the other team members, who initially helped in the development of the app. That itself gave rise to these jealous team members spreading rumors to defame Nosh Technologies as a brand even before we incorporated it. Unfortunately, we had to terminate the services of such team members before we co-founded our startup and carry on developing our brand. Since then we, Nosh Technologies, have developed 3 intellectual properties and have expanded to 151 countries with thousands of active users. The current version of nosh is very different and feature full since the nay-sayers have dropped out and I guess, cutting off the negativity from the team has only helped us to achieve better results within our startup. The funny part of the story is when you see your colleagues act immature and irrational because of their ego and we learnt two lessons from this:
1) Even when someone helps you develop an idea initially, they might not be a good fit within the startup or fit to work on the business itself due to their lack of experience, knowledge and/or maturity. So, be bold and realize when you might need to step up and cut such people from the team.
2) An app and a business are not the same things, especially when your business is dependent on the app. Your business to generate revenue and profit can be very different from the development of your app and to manage the business you will need people who can help you manage the business side itself. Find people who understand your business model, share your vision and find appropriate employees and team members to run the business side of the things as needed.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
This is not the first startup that I have developed or worked with and I have been extremely fortunate to have met, worked and menteed by several amazing people over the years. It is very difficult for me to name a few since there are so many positive people who have shaped my life along the way. However, that being said, I definitely have to thank my parents, Soma Dey and Sudip Dey, who were entrepreneurs as well and have taught me so much about leadership and creating a common vision for people to follow. I have been insanely lucky to have got such parents and getting exposed to entrepreneurship from an early age in life. This helps a lot, however, I am also a firm believer of learning from different people. This helps you to develop an open mind and broaden your network as well. Learn from different people as much as possible. Don’t just limit yourself to having a close group of friends, business partners and mentors. When you have a wide network of people from all walks of life, you tend to see the world more objectively and hence, can come up with solutions and/or products within your startup that are more acceptable by different types of customers.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Albeit disruption, as you have mentioned, may be positive or it may not be so positive as well. A lot of times it’s not so positive because the consumers are not ready for such services or technology yet. Often times a company comes up with ideas that are so disruptive that customers are not sure how to utilize it or they are afraid to utilize it because it goes against nature or traditional methodology. For example, Google Glass was a revolutionary idea, where people can minimize their use of smartphone and free their hands. Google Glass is the future of personal mobile computing, however, the technology is not polished to be adopted in mass yet. Moreover, consumers are not ready to adopt such technology where they more rely on their eyes and voice commands only. When Google Glass came out it was so revolutionary that moving directly from using a smartphone to using voice commands and eyes to control a significant portion of our personal computing seemed a step too far. However, nowadays since consumers are more used to using voice commands with Alexa or Google Home, maybe re-introducing the concept of Google Glass as a viable product in the next 4–5 years for mass adoption has a much more success rate. Hence, the two biggest challenges for a disruptive product or service are: 1) Is the service or product timely for the current consumers/market? 2) Do we have a product-market fit given the current scenario?
For this same reason, we haven’t yet included several disruptive features in the nosh app, as already mentioned, such as paying for food items automatically and being able to enter them into the nosh app along with their expiry dates just using the camera of your smartphone. Although we have developed the intellectual property, but we will be slowly releasing and including such features into our app so that users can get used to such futuristic and advanced features gradually.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
My childhood and teenage years weren’t conventional. I had to work for my parents from an early age to get my “pocket money”. Along the way, while working for my parents, those experiences have taught me many invaluable lessons in life. I have been also fortunate enough to work with many brilliant people along the way and have learnt a lot from them as well. Some of those pieces of advice are.
- If something doesn’t exist then don’t wait for others to do it. Do it yourself because life is too short to wait. In 2014, I came to England to pursue my masters in advanced computer science. At that time my parents went through a car accident, paralyzing my father due to spinal cord injury. Doctors back in India gave him only a couple of months to live since the technology wasn’t available to medically support my father. But my father and mother didn’t give up hope. Instead of waiting for others to resolve this, later I gave up my full-time job as a Software Engineer and went back to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Essex in designing and developing AI to help people. Now a group of scientists at the University of Essex are developing an exoskeleton using AI to help paralyzed patients to be able to move their limbs again.
- Life is not fair. The world is not fair, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be fair to others. Kindness and empathy make you a better leader in the long run. It builds more trust among the people and you and they would be readier to follow your lead. So, from personal experience I have realized don’t be a douche. Treat everyone with respect and the way you want to be treated even if the other person is not kind enough ro you have been through a lot.
- Life is too short to have regrets or unfinished businesses. If you want something then go get it or else you might end up torturing yourself by thinking what you could have achieved only if you took actions towards it. I, personally, try not to have any regrets. In case I actually feel like doing something, I end up doing it.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Definitely, we are just getting started. At the moment we are continuing to develop our nosh app and at the same time developing the business side of it. We are trying to create a full virtual view of your kitchen in your smartphone and edge devices. Although we cannot give out more details on what we are planning given the sensitivity of our intellectual property, however, these features will make our consumers’ life a hell lot easier. Let’s keep this a secret for the time being and leave it to your and the readers’ imagination. We are also working with Plug & Play Ventures, who were an early investor in Google, PayPal, Dropbox, LendingClub and N26, to start our seed funding round very soon as well. We have already signed up onto their Playbook platform to raise investments towards our goal to reduce food waste using cutting edge technology. So, keep an eye out for news related to that as well.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I am a big fan of TED talks. They have inspired me for years. In 2018, Kai-Fu Lee’s TED talk on “How AI can save our humanity” inspired me to develop AI to improve lives. We live in an era where information is equivalent to gold and technology is the most powerful weapon. My journey into the field of AI was not conventional. I wanted to help my paralyzed father and millions of other paralyzed patients around the world using AI, and found myself studying a Ph.D. on the topic. However, AI is not just limited to one applicative way to improve lives. It can be used in so many ways to help people. One such application is reducing food waste and thus, we came up with nosh to tackle this issue. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to give my own TED talk on “Are we developing Artificial Intelligence to support humanity?”, sharing my personal journey into the field and how AI is impacting our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This might seem a bit cliché and you must have heard this being said by millions of people already, however, my most favorite life lesson quote has to be the one given by Steve Jobs at his Stanford commencement address.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something. Your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
I, personally, have always followed my passion and what my heart always wanted to do. Often times I also worked odd jobs or took classes on non-contemporary skills, but later down the line, I have always found those experiences and skills useful and valuable towards building my company and to offer better products and services. For example, a long time ago I used to pursue research on securely storing and retrieving information in QR codes. Most food products get 2-D Universal Product Code barcode to store product information, but the amount of information that can be stored is very limited. That’s why food product barcodes do not contain information on the expiry date/best buy date of the product, only contains 12 numeric digits, which is assigned to unique products and points to the manufacturer information and type. Hence, fetching the expiry or best before date by scanning the barcode is currently not possible. On the other hand, if you use QR code to store all the information about the product then you get a lot more storage space to save such information. For this reason, at nosh, we have utilized blockchain and QR code to make the food supply chain data available and verifiable such that making payments to buy the product and storing the details in the nosh app is easier than the conventional methods. This was only possible because of my previous experience on using and developing QR code-based methodologies in my work.
You are a person of great 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. 🙂
No matter how much technology we bring into our lives, no amount of technology can make us do something. Hell, even another human being can’t make us do anything until and unless we internalize the issue within and then take proactive actions to resolve it. It’s the same with nosh and food waste. Although we are using cutting edge AI in our app to make us more aware of food waste in the household, until we realize and acknowledge the food waste issue individually, we won’t make any progress in reducing food waste in general. Next time, when you have leftovers, instead of throwing it away, share it with people who might need them or use them. Instead of forgetting to eat some food kept in the fridge or pantry, make notes of such food before they expire and consume it so that they don’t end up in your garbage. You can either use pen and sticky notes to take notes of the stocked food or you can just use nosh to make your life easier, whichever, is more convenient for you. If you see someone else wasting food, don’t just shy away and say nothing. Ask them to be conscious as well and ask them to do something about it. Get a doggy bag to take the food home or give it to someone in need. We all have to play our part in reducing food waste and proactively deal with it, rather than depending on technology to do it for us.
How can our readers follow you online?
As Nosh Technologies we keep our website update to date with news related to nosh and our vision in reducing food waste. So, don’t forget to visit our website at https://nosh.tech
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!