Austin Hirsh turns misfit produce into drinkable meals that are as healthy as they are delicious
Austin Hirsh (MS 2020) doesn’t suggest you try his smoothies because they reduce food waste, or because they are a healthier alternative to other sugary beverages. He suggests you try one because they taste great.
“It’s great to make sustainable products. But a lot of sustainable products out there are less convenient than the everyday version, or they don’t taste as good,” says the CEO and co-founder of The 2050 Company, a startup with a mission to convert what would otherwise be wasted produce into new products. “The key to convincing people to make sustainable changes to their diet and lifestyle is to provide a product that is more convenient and tastes just as good.”
To achieve that goal, Hirsh and his partner Greg Gibson have successfully launched The 2050 Company, which now has three flavors of smoothies available in its online store. The ingredients are sourced from farms and distributors, which grow large quantities of fruit that is of the same quality, taste and texture as the produce in the market, but isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough to attract consumers. The 2050 Company purchases this excess inventory at a discount and uses a process similar to freeze drying to transform it to a powdered smoothie mix. The mix can be stored for months and shipped economically around the country. Consumers then simply mix the powder with water and ice, creating a smoothie at home for a fraction of the cost of buying one at an upscale juice bar.
“Our ingredient list is 100% fruits and vegetables,” Hirsh explains. “We don’t have to add any preservatives or sweeteners because the fruits are naturally sweet.”
The company has partnered with a commercial, large-scale food processing facility with the capability to retain all the health benefits of the original fruit in the smoothie mix. “When we dry it,” he says, “it just loses water, with minimal losses of nutrients, fiber or flavor.”
The 2050 Company’s product line-up is the culmination of extensive trial-and-error Hirsh conducted dating back to his time at Foster. Hirsh was a smoothie enthusiast, but was frustrated with the effort and expense of making them at home. He thought this was a great opportunity to combine his passions—an entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to take steps to minimize global warming.
Armed with a blender, a home freeze-drying unit and a whole lot of bananas, he got to work on a proof of concept. The results were promising. Convinced he was on to something, Hirsh teamed with fellow UW students and entered a number of student startup competitions. He did extraordinarily well, winning the first prize at the Northwest Entrepreneur Competition and taking third place at the 2020 Dempsey Startup Competition for a combined $20,000 in prize money and a big boost to his confidence.
“I was one of the judges in The 2050 Company’s Sweet 16 group of four companies and we sent Austin and team on to the final,” says Geoff Entress, co-founder and managing director of Pioneer Square Labs “We were impressed with company’s early sales, customer excitement about the product and, most of all, Austin’s passion and vision for the company and its mission. This passion and vision was exemplified by Austin throughout the Jones + Foster Accelerator program where Austin pretty much single-handedly orchestrated a very successful Kickstarter campaign and then attracted a great co-founder in Greg Gibson to take the company to the next level.
“Some people are born to be great entrepreneurs and I think Austin is one of them.”
To get The 2050 Company from concept to an actual start-up business, Hirsh utilized the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Doing so was a risk. Less than half of Kickstarter projects end up fully funded, in which case no funds are released.
Hirsh bucked the odds, raising over $40,000 from more than 400 backers, some of whom have since raved about the product. Hirsh attributes his success on the platform to his preparation. “I would caution anyone who is thinking about Kickstarter to really do their homework,” he says. “I spent an entire summer preparing, and basically set up the entire supply chain before even hitting go. As soon as the Kickstarter goal was reached, I could ship.”
After spending the summer hosting smoothie pop-ups in downtown Seattle, The 2050 Company began offering their smoothies at Metropolitan Market in Gig Harbor. This marked the first step in a retail expansion that will characterize much of the company’s growth in 2022 and beyond.
Hirsh studied as an undergraduate at the University of San Diego. When it came to graduate school, the choice was obvious for the Gig Harbor, WA, native. Both of his parents had graduated from Foster, and Hirsh was seeking to increase his business skills in the classroom while still working on his company.
“The MS in Entrepreneurship Program specifically attracted me because I knew I wanted to start a company,” he says. “Foster was one of the few schools in the country that offered a 12-month program that I could go through and not have to put my business on hold. I could spend the days getting the skills I need to run a business and then apply them at night.”
“Austin is a great example of the type of entrepreneur, and the type of leader, the world needs more of today,” says Samantha Ogle, director of the MS in Entrepreneurship Program. “He’s identified a creative, simple—and delicious!—solution to a large-scale problem. Austin has the grit to persevere during difficult times and the drive to fulfill his grand vision.”
While Hirsh took many valuable lessons from his time at Foster, the most important insight came from Professor David Tan’s strategy class—and helped shape the 2050 company’s mission today. “The most important question you need to face when launching a business is: ‘Am I the right person to solve this problem?’” Hirsh says. “There are a lot of big companies out there who have plenty of resources they could put towards making a similar product, especially in the food and beverage space. Someone like Coca-Cola could easily make a powdered smoothie mix.”
Part of the solution
What distinguishes Hirsh and Gibson is their commitment to have The 2050 Company provide a great product while operating in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.
The company is named for the goal of preventing global warming of 2°C by the year 2050. Eliminating the massive amount of food waste in the western world is a vital component of achieving this goal. This mission extends to every aspect of the company’s operations, as they have partnered with rePurpose Global to offset plastic use and are at work on infrastructure efficiencies to achieve carbon neutrality.
With that as The 2050 Company’s North Star, Hirsh is ready for expansion, with new products and partnerships in the works. He notes that less wasted food means more food available, which positions his company to do good on multiple fronts.
“There are a lot of young people who are really passionate about the mission we have at the 2050 company.” Hirsh says. “The problem of food waste and the problem of food disparity go hand in hand. As the population grows and it gets warmer, food gets more difficult to grow. So, it’s even more important to solve that food waste problem right away.”