In a world bursting with abundances like self-driving cars and robotic personal assistants, you would think that basic needs like sustainable food sourcing and distribution would be a problem of the past. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), every year roughly a third — 1.3 billion tons — of food grown for consumption is lost or wasted. In industrialized countries like the U.S., this results in a loss of $680 billion per year, and in countries without standardized infrastructure (such as proper cooling systems), this results in a loss of $310 billion per year.
Among the billions of tons of food lost per year, the largest percentage is in vital, nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables and roots and tubers (such as potatoes and carrots), each seeing about 45 percent wasted annually.
There are many factors responsible for food waste, including poorly regulated “Best By” and “Sell By” dates in the U.S. that tempt fickle customers into wasting otherwise good food, and unreliable or non-existent cooling distribution systems in less-industrialized countries.
But an underlying cause of both of these issues, especially for easily spoiled foods, is the inherent shelf life of the food itself. And that’s where Apeel Sciences steps in.
The California-based startup is combating food waste by using plant-derived materials from food itself to create an extra protective barrier to prolong its life and stave off spoilage — essentially, creating a second peel. To create it, farmers just add water to Apeel’s protective powder and apply it to produce as a spray or wash.
For founder and CEO James Rogers, who was working on a PhD in materials engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara when he was inspired to create Apeel Sciences, the solution to the problem of quickly spoiled food could be found by looking to a problem science had already solved: rust.
“Factors that cause spoilage are water loss and oxidation,” Rogers told TechCrunch. “[This] reminded me instantly of my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon as a metallurgist studying steel. Steel is perishable as well. It’s perishable because it rusts — it reacts with oxygen in the environment — and [that] limits its use. [But metallurgists] designed a little oxide barrier that would physically protect the surface of that steel, [creating] stainless steel.
Rogers says he began to wonder if a similar method could be used to protect produce from spoiling effects as well.
“Could we create a thin barrier along the outside of fresh produce and in doing that lower the perishability and perhaps make a dent in the hunger problem?”
Apeel was officially founded in 2012 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for $100,000 to help reduce post-harvest food waste in developing countries that lacked refrigeration infrastructure. To combat this issue, Apeel set up self-service and hybrid distribution systems for farmers in countries like Kenya and Uganda to help protect their produce during its journey from farm to consumer, without the need for refrigeration.
While the company still has a foothold in Africa and Southern Asia, it has also started partnerships with farmers in the U.S. as well, and in May and June of this year introduced the first Apeel produce — avocados — to U.S. retailers Costco and Harps Food Stores.
Because Apeel produce is not genetically modified (but instead plant-derived), they need no special labeling at grocers, but Rogers said the produce wears its scientific design on its sleeve nevertheless.
“We’re not doing anything at the DNA level, there’s no genetic modification, but we want to be really upfront with consumers and actually have them look for the label because by identifying that label they’re going to know that bringing that produce home with them [they’ll have] higher-quality, longer-lasting produce that they’ll be less likely to throw away.”
According to Apeel, since its avocados were introduced to Harps Food Stores, the retailer has seen a 65 percent increase in margin and a 10 percent lift in sales across the avocado category.
With these successes under its belt, Apeel also announced in July the closing of a $70 million funding round led by Viking Global Investors, with Andreessen Horowitz, Upfront Ventures and S2G Ventures participating.
Rogers told TechCrunch that the capital will help the company continue its research and development of new methods to fight food waste, including Apeel sprays for produce like stone fruit and asparagus, and continue to learn from solutions found in nature, “Our [mission] at its core is looking at natural ecosystems to determine and identify what materials it’s using to solve problems and how we might be able to extract and isolate those materials to solve other problems for humanity.”