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High-tech milk pasteurization powered by low-tech cow poop! [UPDATED 7 Feb - video]

Our idea is a milk pasteurization product that tackles the problem of climate change by producing needed product (safe milk) alongside renewable energy production. Our team of Stanford electrical engineering PhDs have invented a new, low-cost, super low energy method for pasteurizing milk. It uses high voltage pulses to directly kill bacteria rather than heating the whole volume of milk up, cutting energy use by 50%. Where there is milk, there is cow poop. The poop from a single cow can pasteurize 10X the milk it produces, and cuts methane emissions from manure. Our units can eliminate the 50% of milk spoilage in Africa (boosting income), empower local food-sheds, save lives, and cut the 4% global CO2 & CH4 from farms & industry alike.

Photo of Sarah Rizk
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Refinement: We want to focus on how we can provide value to farmer communities in (1) California, (2) Africa. Here are our hypotheses:

(1) California: 
FOR a small (~200 cow) dairy farmer, they NEED a way to stop disease in their herd that is transmitted to calves through raw milk BECAUSE if their herd becomes infected with disease like Johne's disease, they lose ~$40/head. Because of this, they are willing to pay ~$10,000 for a small on-farm pasteurizer to sterilize milk for thier calves and prevent disease. 
Questions:
1. Is putting a pasteurization unit on farm the prefered method of preventing this disease transmission?
2. How are communities of farmers coming together to deal with this disease, which touches 70% of farms?
Our approach is to go out and interview farmers this week to learn more about this. We will be posting videos over the next couple of days to share with the OpenIDEO Community.

(2) Kenya, Africa:
FOR a small (1 cow) farmer, they NEED a way to prevent spoilage of their milk BECAUSE half of their milk is spoiling today, cutting their potential revenue in half. Because of this, they are willing to pay for a system that prevents pasteurization if they can finance the system with their savings.
Questions: 
1. Who bears the economic cost of milk spoilage? Is the farmer with the cow willing to pay for pasteurization?
2. Take a look at our supply chain drawing. Do we have this right? 
For this we are heavily relying on the OpenIDEO community for feedback, as we don't have feet on the ground in Africa. Insights about India and other emerging nations are also appreciated.


By designing a small, modular, efficient non-thermal pulse electric field (PEF) system, we will be able to supply small farmers with on-farm pasteurization systems to treat milk before transport. By treating milk at the farm, we eliminate the possibility of spoilage and resulting health risks locally. 

Conventional thermal pasteurization costs is very energy intense and clostly - ours is radically cheaper. PEF is a proven technology for pasteurizing milk and other liquids but has not been cost-effective in the past because of large power supply costs. Our patent pending technology is a fraction of the size of conventional power supply units and is the driver for the low cost of the system. 

PEF treatment sends high voltage electric pulses through the liquid, which rips apart the cell walls of bacteria, killing them. Conventional thermal pasteurization heats up milk to 160 degrees F and then cools it back down. In the PEF system, electricity directly kills the bacteria and does not rely on heating the whole volume of liquid. As a result, it uses only a fraction of the energy of conventional systems. Furthermore, our system enables higher levels of pasteurization to decrease refrigeration needs over the life of the milk and drive further GHG reductions.

We can power our system with cow poop using a biodigestor, and this reduces the large GHG emissions associated with methane that comes off the manure. Farmers have this fuel source readily available on their farms, so it costs them nothing in fuel and gives them 100% reliability. It's a simple, beautiful closed loop process in action that with every churn reduces the CO2-eq in the atmosphere by destroying CH4 which is 22x as powerful as CO2. 

We have completed small-scale proof of concept which demonstrates the effectiveness of the unit at providing liquid sterilization.  We are currently developing a second-generation prototype for pilot testing with users. We are also conducting interviews with dairy farmers to ensure that our system meets user needs. We are also building out our business plan and pitch decks in order to seek seed funding. Now we need you  to help us make this real and ensure that we are building it in a way that our customers will embrace. 


 

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

Small farmers in emerging markets with high spoilage rates - We are looking at India and Africa where spoilage rates are 30-50%, reducing the income of people on a key stepping stone out of poverty. These households typically have 1-5 cows and need a highly affordable system that is financed so they don't have to pay the whole amount upfront. Pasteurizing it before someone comes to pick milk up on a bicycle means it doesn't spoil and they get paid the full amount. Every time the pasteurize using our cow-poop powered system, they prevent methane emissions and make more money. Industrial milk producers - Most milk is processed at large processing plants which are huge energy hogs. We can put in our lower-cost systems at these industrial plants, and cut energy consumption by 50%. Artisinal cheesemakers - Cheesemakers often spend as long pasteurizing as making cheese, and they hate it! We can do it faster, which means they can make more cheese. More cheese = more happy cheese eaters! It also means more money in their bank. Farms pasteurizing milk for their calves to drink - Calves are typically separated from their moms at 1-3 days on larger dairy farms. The USDA has found that a lot of calves get sick from unpasteurized milk, but many farmers can't afford a $10-$50k pasteurization machine. Save calves through affordable milk pasteurization. Others - We are also looking at raw milk, home cheesemakers, and others.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

By embedding renewables within the dairy system, we change the renewables challenge and value proposition by making it one component of an income-generating product. Users can produce more electricity than they need, so they can also retail electricity to neighbors and others.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We have talked to farmers in Costa Rica, China, and the US and we think there is a real need for our product. We do not yet have FDA approval for our new technology and one question we are trying to answer is if people in under-regulated markets will accept our technology (eg. small rural farmers in emerging economies, aged cheesemakers, raw milk drinkers, others) before we go through this long process. For the US, we are testing this now. We need to ask the same of people in emerging markets.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

Help us design a product that fits into the way that people make milk and manage manure now. Also, help us get perspective on our ideas about emerging market opportunities, spoilage, and on-farm milk pasteurization. Though we are close to markets in California, we don't have as much perspective on emerging markets.

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • Biofuels

This idea emerged from:

  • A Student Collaboration

35 comments

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Photo of Tatiana Martinez
Team

Great idea !!! congratulations :)

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Photo of Amanda Rees
Team

Hi Sarah,

Great updates to your idea, which have prompted a few additional questions!

It seems like you've picked two extreme cases that address very different communities and needs. Do you have any project priority between California and Kenya? Why did you pick Kenya? Are you still in discussion with the farmers in Costa Rica as well?

Additionally, after watching your video interview with the farmer, I'm curious: how big the opportunity is to pasteurize milk for calves? Is there another way to address issues of disease and infection? How many farmers use pasteurized milk instead of milk substitute?

Thanks,
Amanda

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Photo of Joanna Spoth
Team

Love your video of the farmer. Really highlights that you are designing for people! It would be awesome to see more of these videos and really dig into the heart of their needs and how to best design for them.

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Photo of Nathan Lucy
Team

Those images of steaming poop... Hilarious!

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Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Something we'd encourage you to think about is how you might update your Summary section (text above the image gallery) to encapsulate what your idea actually entails briefly and clearly. (you can then move any additional text down into the Description field)

Here's a template if you need some help, though feel free to come up with your own clarifying sentence structure.

Our idea is a_________________ [campaign/app/service/program/online platform/toolkit/social enterprise/etc.] that tackles the problem of _____________[the issue being addressed ] by __________[what your idea looks like in practice].

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Thanks! Let me know what you think of the updated statement

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Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Awesome. I'd recommend you just keep the brief summary up in that section and move the stuff about your Stanford team down to the Description section. Great to start off with brief clarity :^)

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Photo of Ryan Barcza
Team

Awesome idea, Sarah and Luke! I think many of the comments so far have definitely demonstrated the incredible global opportunity for your PEF system, but as you alluded to, it may make the most sense to focus on the nearby California market today. You'll have much better access to communicate with the farmers directly, get feedback throughout the development process, and more easily work hands-on with them to understand their specific needs so you can develop the system that addresses their exact pain points. Once you've demonstrated proof of concept with these folks and have a track record of success, then it then may make more sense to expand geographically long-term. Have you thought about catering the system to small vs. large producers? They're likely going to have very different features/requirements, so again, it may be worthwhile to hone in on one niche early on so that you don't get stretched too thin at the outset trying to make a system that meets everyone's requirements. Also, do you have any thoughts on what it may cost to produce / install / maintain at this point? Have you looked into quantifying the specific energy savings that could generated by the dairy producers? Even beyond energy savings / reduced sickness among calves, does your system mitigate any other safety/tech risks for the farmers? Getting that info could really help out with pricing / sales down the line--especially in terms of painting a picture for farmers why the system is so critical. Lastly (finally), have you investigated reaching out to regional or national dairy farmer associations? With their support /stamp of approval, it may be far easier to get farmers to jump on board for pilots / interviews.

All that being said, amazing job so far! I'm rooting for you to make this a big success!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Great comments. I think I touched on many of these above in my response to the IDEO team , so urge you to read that response. One key area you bring up is national associations. In the US, 75% of milk is brought to market by co-ops that facilitate the whole supply chain. These groups are very powerful in congress and we have informally reached out to them to get their advice on FDA approval, pilots, and everything else. I think with their support, we are likely to have a much easier time the regulatory path. On FDA, we have also thought of applying for Corporate Venture capital funds, to leverage their larger organization for lobbying power.

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Photo of Yoni Sarason
Team

Can this pulse treatment also be used to purify water? I assume that in many of the places in which milk spoilage is an issue, water quality is, too. If cow manure can power 10x the amount of milk, I assume there would be left over capacity to 'pasteurize' other things as well, or potentially to power other things.

In terms of markets to try this in, I might suggest looking at Israel, where there are a number of dairy farms, and farmers who think both about sustainability and cost.

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Photo of Natalie Lake
Team

Love this idea!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Yes!! We actually first started looking water purification, and that is actually much easier to do than milk. We wound up looking at milk because there is an abundance of technology that does a great job at cheap water filtration but not much that does milk cheaply. It's a great point though that anyone with this system could easily use it for other things, like water, juice, or even wine or beer! You could also imagine these systems turning into microgrid hubs in communities where multiple people power light systems off of them.

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Photo of Monika Shankar
Team

Hi Sarah and Luke,

What a cool project! Its great to hear that you have figured out a way to catch the methane released from agricultural uses. Being based in CA, you probably already know that there's been a lot of focus on methane's contribution to climate change (from oil extraction sites, from agriculture, etc.). There are a lot of people (legislators, environmental advocates, local activists) who are really concerned with this co-pollutant as a contributor to global warming. A technology that could capture methane and use it towards a sustainable agricultural practices would be very welcome by sustainable agriculture in the Central Valley and in other places in CA. Do you have any estimates on how much methane could potentially be captured if this project was scaled? I would recommend elevating this aspect of your project. It could be used to built partnerships with environmental advocates who are working on methane issues in CA.

Good luck!
Monika

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Hi Monika,

Thanks for your insightful comment here. This is definitely a big issue for us. In CA, it's actually both a blessing and a curse to try to leverage methane reductions from farm operations....

It turns out that many of the farms are located in some of the worst air quality districts in the world - making it hard to actually use that methane for energy production because getting a electricity generating unit permitted is impossible. Turns out that the flares though (just setting the methane on fire) are much easier to permit, and get at the methane problem. In the small sized units we are talking about, we could probably create electricity directly from that flare using a sterling engine. Anyhow, we would need to figure this one out in order to be able to use the methane reductions as a selling point in California.

But if we can figure it out, it's a big deal. This is a huge source of clean energy in CA and with the Governor's new announcement for 50% renewables by 2050, this could be part of the solution. Let me run the numbers on the methane and get back to you on this!

Sarah

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Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Nice work on the new visualisations!

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Photo of Carles Guerrero Santiago
Team

Agree

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Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

And I just found out you've been collaborating with our Community Champion, Jes, to create these. We'd recommend that you add a line about that collaboration somewhere on your post – and consider including her in your team or attribute her via a caption on the images. We're such big fans of collaboration here at OpenIDEO and always encourage folks to be explicit about any connections being made to strengthen ideas, together. Bring it on!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Absolutely! Jes has been AMAZING!!

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Photo of Zach Dierberg
Team

Hello!

The San Francisco OpenIDEO Meetup team just finished up a quick discussion about your great idea and had a couple of insights/questions:

Would it be possible to focus solely on the PEF system and use another renewable energy source such as solar? Our team felt that in California the manure methane process may not be as attractive/cost effective as other options and in Kenya manure may already be needed for fertilizer or fire fuel.

Specifically with the PEF system, what is the margin of error or chance for user error? (in comparison, with heating, one could easily tell by actually seeing the boiling, thermometer, etc).

How sophisticated is the apparatus around the PEF system? Is it something that could easily be repaired in a remote rural location?

Could the PEF system actually enhance the overall shelf life of the milk?

In regards to the methane/electricity converter, what is the manure to volume of milk ratio? In Kenya would this be something each farmer would have or could a small village share it?

For the Kenya situation have you thought about using micro finance (such as Kiva.org) to help farmers afford it?

While a spoilage rate of 50% is really high, it may be important to confirm with these communities that demand is actually high enough to cover the cost of implementing the new process.

In California, we felt there may be an opportunity to partner with large regional farms(Straus or Clover dairy farms, etc) and focus on branding the milk to show its 'green' benefits. In theory this could create something similar to the current organic trend amongst some consumers and allow farms to justify the cost to convert to the new process.

Also in California, we thought it might be possible to incorporate a 'Tom's Shoes" approach in which if consumers bought 'green' milk from participating CA farmers, a portion of the price would go towards helping dairy farmers in other countries to convert to this process, thus greater helping the decrease of greenhouse gases. The team thought that as long as the consumer understood the cause, a large number would be willing to pay a higher price for their milk.

MOST IMPORTANTLY THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HARD WORK SO FAR AND HOPEFULLY SOON WE"LL BE DRINKING MILK THAT'S REDUCING GREENHOUSE GASES!!!

Spam
Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Hi Zach,

Thank you for the thoughtful feedback of the IDEO SF team! Here are our thoughts:
(1) Solar?
Yes, we could absolutely power the system using solar PV and in many ways this would be much easier.
PROS: fairly high reliability, no need for a combustion engine - particularly useful in CA with tight air quality regs, "clean" (!) and contained system that we could sell as a stand-alone unit, no need to integrate with manure management systems; CONS: while there is poop everywhere there is milk, there may not always be sun; less emission offsets (don't get the 22x reduction); higher cost.
A bit more background: Biodigestors are typically quite cheap as compared to solar. A big challenge with them though is that not all manure is created equal in terms of methane content, and so depending on the food & climate, you can get highly variable output. Also, you can use the output from a biodigestor as fertilizer and land-apply it in just the same way you normally would, but if your cows are out roaming the hillside today and directly fertilizing, it can be difficult to gather the manure and then re-apply it. Instead, biodigestors generally work best where cows have some grain feed component to their diet which also means they are in a contained space where manure can be collected.

(2) Margin for error
We are hoping to design the system with a built-in sensor to ensure that milk is being properly treated. It is indeed more difficult than sticking a thermometer in a batch of milk to monitor, so this would probably be part of our device. Another startup we met recently is running rapid testing of bacteria levels, and we might wind up using something like this to create an indicator light on the device.

(3) Repair
Creating a robust device is definitely a design requirement for emerging markets, especially because last mile distribution is so challenging. We don't have great data today on how robust our device is, as we are still getting the fundamentals of the system built out at lab scale. So, this is an outstanding risk. Technically, we don't foresee huge problems with making it robust, but we also don't yet have an informed opinion on what will components will fail and how we can overcome this.

(4) Shelf life
In theory, we should be able to use a higher voltage pulse to kill more bacteria. We would love to be able to match kill levels of UHT pasteurized milk, which does not need to be refrigerated. However, it's possible that the amount of energy we would need to put into the high voltage pulse to accomplish that extremely high level of sterilization would actually be higher than the amount of energy needed to treat it thermally, as our method's energy requirements are non-linear. We are still learning whether we could do it with less energy or not. If we could, then yes, we could extend the shelf life and eliminate refrigeration. But, this is unknown.

(5) Manure/Milk ratio
Using average methane content and milk production, the average cow's manure can treat 10 cows' worth of milk production. The way we have thought about this is an opportunity for excess energy production and microgrid potential. I like the idea of also thinking of this as a centralized processing facility for a community. I think the viability of this depends on the density of the community.

(6) Microfinance
Yes! Definitely a great idea. We had been thinking about it as Pay-as-you-go-solar (like http://simpanetworks.com/ where I used to work in India). Microfinance is definitely a similar and compatible great approach. Making it affordable will be key!

(7) Cost of spoilage
Yes, we need to understand who bears this cost and how much it is.

LOVE the ideas around regional partnership & Tom's Shoes model. We have also thought about how we can leverage a higher margin product in the US to make systems even cheaper in emerging economies. Or having groups like Heifer International give out our system with the cow. Today, I spoke with Foster Farms and will be visiting them in a couple weeks. We also reached out to Straus, Clover, and Berkeley Farms, and are waiting to hear back.

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Photo of Amanda Rees
Team

Hi Sarah and Team,

Congrats on making it to the Refinement phase. In the comments, you mentioned that you met with some producers in Costa Rica, and I was curious if you've had any follow up with them. Are you still considering collaboration with Dos Pinos? It would be great to hear more about what you learned through that experience and how you are thinking about community challenges and needs as you continue developing this idea!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Hey all. As we enter the feedback phase, I wonder where we should focus our effort? Maybe we could look at this idea within the context of a specific community to get a better feel for how communities might take the lead on deploying a system like this.

Over the last week, we have gotten really interested in pasteurizing on farms for milk that the calves drink in order to make sure that cows stay healthy as there is a big problem with Johne's Disease which pasteurization for calves can help curb. We would love to focus on this potential need within California Dairies and learn more about how farmers may be organizing or deploying solutions related to this issue. Does anyone have insight on this? Would be great to look at how we might revise our overall system diagram with the California dairy community at the center and calf health as a key problem we would be solving, while generating renewable electricity.

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Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Hi Sarah. As vets and dairy farmers are part of a community have you considered approaching veterinary schools or veterinary associations in California as a source of insights into how dairy farmers are approaching disease prevention or control?

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Photo of Regina Walton
Team

One word: Coalinga.

But seriously, Coalinga is along the I-5 and tons of cows, including Harris Ranch, are there. It's unfortunately known by everyday folks for the smell, but I know there are diary farms in the area.

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Photo of Joanna Spoth
Team

Love this idea, Sarah and Luke! Very exciting to hear of the progress you've already made. I wonder how this process may appeal to local farmers in the developed world as well. Are you currently testing that in any way?

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

We have spoken to people in China and Costa Rica. In China, lots of milk is sold directly to consumer and people tend to boil it at home. So, we could potentially sell to farmers so they could sell pasteurized milk - but there are some cultural challenges with a potential preference for warm milk. In Costa Rica, most farmers sell directly to larger milk producers. They could pre-pasteurize to reduce refrigeration costs and decrease bacteria count. We think the best play in the developing world is India and Africa, where spoilage rates are 30-50% and we can therefore boost peoples' income by this much.

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Photo of Shuting Zeng
Team

Ah this also covers another of my favorite topic: food!

Speaking of China here is a Chinese if you need some communication/connection help! And I really think China can use your technology greatly Sarah. About your research on Chinese's milk drinking habit, I feel that is partially true -- in most urban/suburban areas, people drink packaged milk most of the time, because they believe that milk from large milk producers such as Yili and Mengniu is cleaner and safer than milk they get from the market.

The milk products in China, however, are poorly regulated bec of many socio-political reasons -- big milk producers such as Yili didn't really get any formal supervision and produced problematic milk with additive that damages people's health. I think they tried to improve after being found out and having big PR crisis. Bec of their monopoly status, today they are still the main milk producers in China people trust and buy from. They are based in Inner-Mongolia where milk production is very industrialized. So I think it may be a good idea to start approaching these companies to see if they would like to implement your great technology. If so, I would like to connect you with them in some way :)

Besides these two big companies, younger generation entrepreneurs have started new dairy brands especially in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. They all try to break the monopoly and increase the food safety for people. Your technology will definitely be a great help to them who really hope to save for their own venture and also for milk farmers they work with!

In my experience, milk is getting more and more affordable and covering more rural areas in China. For my part which is Southeast Asia, I have rarely seen people who prefer warm milk -- even if so, they now tend to believe that boiling the milk does not do enough to kill the germ. Where did you conduct your research about milk drinking habit? I am so curious and feel like knowing more about the food market in China!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

This insight about China is really great. I had heard of the milk safety issues especially in milk for newborns which is horrible. It would be really interesting to work with young entrepreneurs who are working on improving food safety.

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Photo of Joanna Spoth
Team

Sorry Sarah, I meant to ask about the *developed* world. If price point is a concern, there are probably some more affluent farms who would be interested in doing a small pilot.

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

Ah thanks Joanna. Yes, we are also looking in the developed world. Since we are based in California where there is a huge dairy industry this is particularly appealing! One challenge for us is getting our new technology to be approved by the FDA, which we need to sell milk using our product in the US. We plan to do this, but it may take time to get this approval. We have been talking to farmers this week about making milk safe for their calves to drink, since there have been more and more calves getting sick from unpasteurized milk being fed to them on the farm. This may be a great route for us initially since it helps our price point and also keeps us local, which is great for iterating on our new product.

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Photo of Shuting Zeng
Team

Hi Sarah, I am glad you find the milk market two cents helpful! Following the thread between Joanna and you, I will say Chinese market is a mix -- because of the huge gap between the rich and poor, you may feel the big cities in China can be seen as the developed market, and the big milk companies will love to purchase technology that will save them money in the long term. Compared to American market, Chinese market is less regulated and thus more efficient with many policy change indeed!

If you are interested in talking with the young entrepreneurs who work on milk safety, I would love to help reach out and connect you to one or two rising brands in Beijing! One thing is that even in Beijing, going English/international is still slowly happening and I haven't found those brands' English websites to share with you. Yet I can send you links of their Chinese social media profiles (which would be easy to understand with illustrations and short texts) and if you are interested, I will reach out and start talking with them! Let me know! My email is: shutingzeng.damu@gmail.com if you feel like starting the Chinese market research!

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Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

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Photo of Natalie Lake
Team

Hi Sarah and Luke,

This is a super cool idea! If you guys are looking for places to pilot in the developing world, I may have a contact for you guys in Costa Rica. I just finished up my Peace Corps service in Peru and during that time I was part of an initiative called ECPA (Energy and Climate Partnership of America.) Through this I met a couple working in a farming community in Costa Rica building cheap biodigesters for this small community of cattle farmers.

I also would be able to find you a contact in Cajamarca, Peru who would likely be interested in your project as well. Let me know! A few questions about your idea, what is the rough cost of your systems?

Also, have you guys discussed how you will tackle the cultural aspects, since pasteurized milk tastes different and communities might not necessarily like the difference. I realize this may seem silly because you would think that most people would appreciate the convenience of it not spoiling but I can tell you from experience this is unfortunately not always the case.

I cannot wait to hear more about your guys' prototyping and let me know if you'd like to be put in contact with those volunteers!

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Photo of Sarah Rizk
Team

It would be great to be put in touch with some folks in Peru. In Costa Rica, I met last month with a handful of farmers and also with Dos Pinos, the largest milk producer in the country. We are in the process of exploring a collaboration with the,. It would be great to talk to folks working on biodigesters in Costa Rica also as this is a key aspect of our design and poses an interesting set of challenges and opportunities.

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Photo of Natalie Lake
Team

Hi Sarah, contacting them now about a potential introduction. The Costa Rica volunteers I know work in Zarcero. I'll let you know about coordinating an introduction!