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These smart freezer sensors help Domino's, 7-Eleven combat food waste

Therma uses sensors along the cold chain give operators granular data to make sustainable changes

inside fridge

Therma's sensors help restaurants owners monitor and improve their freezers and fridges to combat food waste. //Courtesy of Therma

As director of operations for 11 Domino’s Pizzas in Colorado, Bill Oliver has a unique anxiety that rattles around his brain — that one morning his staff will open the store and head back to the freezer section to start the day’s orders only to find the dough, vegetables and meats sitting there unfrozen. 

Refrigerators, freezers and warehouses are vulnerable to malfunctions or human error issues that could result in spoilage and, ultimately, food waste. This link in the cold chain is part of the $161 million food waste problem in the United States. The Boston Consulting Group calculated that "deploying more-advanced supply chain solutions — including cold chain [technologies] in developing markets — could reduce the problem by $150 billion annually." 

Startup Therma, which recently raised $10.2 million, hopes to be part of those more advanced supply chain solutions.

The company has created a smart temperature and humidity sensor that’s mounted inside freezers to record real-time data and send alerts if temperatures rise above a certain threshold. Therma’s breakthrough is using long-range radio to send the signals through densely insulated material such as those used to construct freezers, refrigerators and warehouses. 

"Refrigeration units or a walk-in-freezer or a warehouse often have iron or steel, and have historically blocked signals," said Manik Suri, founder and CEO of Therma. "These densely insulated environments have been very hard for previous generations of internet of things protocols to penetrate."

Suri started building Therma in 2019. In 2020, he was able to scale the company to 831 sensors deployed over 29 unique customers in 119 locations, including McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, 7-Eleven, Wyndham Hotels and, of course, Domino’s. Because the sensor works for temperatures between minus-40 and 257 degrees Fahrenheit, Therma is also starting to enter the health-care sector, another large portion of the cold chain market. 

Therma uses a cascading alert system that escalates the alert higher up the management food chain the longer the freezer is operating above the threshold temperature, starting with employees on-site and ending with managers or owners. Using this system, restaurateurs, including Oliver, have been able to identify equipment failures and power outages. The technology also detects when people making deliveries or cleaning staff prop freezer doors open or improperly close them, as well as other small or large inefficiencies that lead to energy costs and food waste. 

Therma can help businesses save between 5% and 10% in energy costs created by overcooling.

According to Suri, quick-service and full-service restaurants reported an average of 0.6 failures per month per location. Therma’s customers have reported an average of 0.4 failure events per month that were caught and rectified by the sensor system before spoilage occurred, preventing 4.1 percent of food waste per location each month, or about $500 worth per location per month. According to Therma’s calculations, that’s almost 4,000 pounds of food waste yearly.

Beyond food waste, Therma's technology can help businesses save between 5 and 10 percent in energy costs created by overcooling, Suri said. 

"Today, a lot of warehouse owner-operators overcool," he said. "They just lower the thermostat by 5 or 10 degrees to accommodate for hot spots and prevent them from building up. That’s a really expensive way to avoid hot spots." 

And not very sustainable. Suri’s business offers a visualizer tool that uses Therma sensors to help warehouse operators find the hot spots and either rectify or avoid those areas, instead of cranking down the temp. Therma’s other tools, Predict and Insight, put historical data into the hands of operators so they can discover trends, identify defective equipment, determine likely human error and adjust for a more efficient future.

Creating a greener freezer might feel like a sustainability perk that is divorced from the immediate needs of business owners. Therma’s selling point to Oliver was giving him peace of mind so he can sleep at night while also taking one more thing off his to-do list. 

"A lot of it is peace of mind," Oliver said. "We can see that the refrigeration was at a safe temperature for an entire day, therefore, without having someone to go in there and manually take the temperature of the unit four times a day. It’s a huge labor savings." 

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