This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
1. What’s the history of Apeel Sciences? Where and how did you begin?
The Question: How is It Possible that 1 in 9 People are Still Going Hungry?
JR: On a trip (from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to Santa Barbara), I was looking out the window and seeing these lush green fields [of the Salinas Valley, often called the Salad Bowl of the US], and I had [previously] looked through an article on world hunger which wondered how we were going to feed 10 billion people. I had this question in my mind: how is it possible that one in nine people are going hungry when we’ve got these magical seeds that we can throw in the ground, they absorb water, they absorb sunlight, and by the way, they self-propagate.
How is it possible that we’re screwing this up so bad? How are so many people going hungry?
The Answer: Produce is Seasonal, Perishable
I thought perhaps it was a production problem. As it turns out, when I looked a little bit further, the calculations show that we were producing more than enough food to feed the world population, now and into the future. But something I had didn’t really considered is that all produce is seasonal, as well as perishable. You’re either in season, and you have more produce than you know what to do with, or you’re out of season and you have nothing.
So, the problem isn’t so much the production, the problem is the amortization of the supply over a period of time outside of the harvest season.
The Genesis of an Idea: Steel as an Analogy for Food Preservation
I dug a little deeper and said, ok, how do you amortize the supply of fresh produce? It comes down to mitigating spoilage. Then I looked into, how do you mitigate spoilage? Very quickly, it turned up that the leading causes of produce spoilage are water loss and oxidation; water getting out of the produce and oxygen getting into the produce.
So, as soon as I heard this, it rung a bell from my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon where I studied steel (as a metallurgist), and people don’t think about it, but steel is highly perishable in that it rusts, it reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere and forms that iron oxide rust that eats through a chunk of steel. Metallurgists figured out this really clever trick, that by incorporating small numbers of very particular elements into that chunk of steel, those elements would diffuse to the surface instead of the iron, and they would react with oxygen and in so doing, they would form this thin oxide barrier around the outside of the steel. That [barrier] would physically captivate that surface from further oxidation.
Food Itself as a Barrier to Perishability, How Can You Argue?
My thought was, if we solved the problem of perishability for steel by creating this thin barrier around the outside of the steel, and people are going hungry because produce is perishable, and produce is perishable because of the diffusion of water and oxygen, could we solve the diffusion problem of water and oxygen with fresh produce by using a thin barrier, and hence solve the hunger problem?
I drove back to Santa Barbara and told my friends about it and they said, ‘cool idea, but nobody wants to eat chemicals.’
Immediately I thought, water is a chemical, air is a chemical, food is a chemical. And then it was like, a-ha!, food is a chemical. If people are OK with eating the chemicals – molecules – that are in food, what if we could relegate ourselves to only using those molecules which are found in high concentrations in the types of fruits and vegetables that you eat everyday in order to create these formulations that could captivate the produce’s surface.
If we did that, we’d be using food to preserve food, and how could you argue with that, philosophically?
That was the genesis of the idea, about six and a half years ago.
Raising Funds Exponentially, With Help From the Gates’s
From that point, we entered a new venture competition at UC-Santa Barbara, and won $10,000 from that competition to get started. We used that money to formally incorporate the business, and then as a legal entity we were able to apply for financing from grant making organizations.
We then got a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we used that money to raise a $1.25 million round of private financing that we closed in January of 2014, we then used that money to develop the proof of concept. From the proof of concept, we raised a $6 million round of private financing we closed in July of 2015. With that $6 million, we scaled up our manufacturing, we got the FDA designation of our product as approved for sale, and we did some shipping demos.
Subsequent to that, we received another $1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in order to translate the technology that we developed for commercially relevant crops in the United States into a format that was more amenable for use by small holder farmers in developing nations, specifically Kenya and Nigeria.
Then, we took the body of all that work and raised a $33 million round of financing to go from, at that time, creating 100 kg of produce per week, to now creating about 100 kg of produce in a minute.
We just started selling our products commercially about four months ago, kind of small batch production for organic citrus, and we’ve been selling out of that product, and we’ve just scaled up our manufacturing of our first large commercial release of a product, avocados, which is hitting retail store shelves very soon.
2. What specific problem does Apeel Sciences solve? How do you solve it?
Grocery Store Displays: Where Produce Goes to Perish
JR: The simplest way to put it, is that if you look at how losses are distributed throughout the supply chain, there is a significant but relatively marginal contribution to the overall losses in that supply chain during the storage and distribution of that produce. A much greater fraction of the losses that occur in the produce supply chain occur when the fruit is sitting on a retail shelf. An even more significant fraction of those losses occur in the consumer’s home.
There’s really two reasons for this.
The first is, fruit is a living, breathing thing. When you pick it, it’s still living and breathing, and by this analogy, the fruit has a certain number of breaths that it’s able to take in its lifetime. And so, as you get further and further toward the end of the life of the fruit, you have a higher and higher likelihood that the last person holding it (further down the supply chain) is the person holding it when it expires. The last person in that supply chain being the consumer who purchases the produce from the store display shelf.
The second, and much more significant factor (of why produce perishes more on the retail shelf than during transport and distribution), is that during transport and storage you can precisely control the storage conditions of the produce. You can put the produce in a cold, wet box, and by cranking down the temperature as low as possible without freezing the produce and cranking up the relative humidity so that you reduce the stress on the produce, you’re able to control and extend the shelf life of the produce.
The problem with this is that the optimal transport and storage conditions are precisely at odds with the optimal merchandising conditions of the produce. You walk into a grocery store and it’s a well-lit, comfortable, ambient environment where you’re selecting your produce, you’re seeing it, you’re touching it, you’re interacting with it.
As soon as you pull the produce out of those optimal conditions – the cold wet box – and you put them in the optimal merchandising conditions, the fruit “starts to run”; it starts to age and mature at a rate that’s about four or five times faster than it would if it was in the cold storage conditions.
Solving the Problem of Rapid Perishing: Using Food Molecules to Form a Microclimate
Basically, what we do as a company, is we use food to preserve food. That sounds super high-level, so to be practical, what we do is take materials that are extracted from plant material, we turn them into a lightweight, low-cost powder-based formulation, we ship it to where we’d like to use it, we mix it back up with water, and then we spray it on the surface of fresh produce and we allow it to dry. When it dries, it leaves behind this imperceptibly thin barrier of plant material on the outside of the produce and with that thin barrier, by precisely controlling the composition, we’re able to independently modulate how much water and CO2 escapes from the produce relative to the rate that oxygen gets into the produce.
The result is, as the fruit continues to breathe and respire and move throughout the supply chain, we’re able to build up this optimizable microclimate inside of each individual piece of produce, and (that microclimate) travels with the produce throughout the entire supply chain. You don’t only get the benefits during the transportation and storage of the produce, but you also get the benefits of the product when it’s sitting on a retail shelf and ultimately when it’s sitting at home on the counter.
So, for the first time, we’re able to bring optimal storage conditions to a piece of produce not only during transport/storage, but also during the merchandising and consumption periods. That’s why we’re so excited about this. Considering the magnitude of food losses and food waste in the system today, we believe that this is the fastest way that we can move the dial in terms of better natural resource use efficiency.
(Apeel’s Edipeel spray has been shown to increase shelf life by two to four or even five times.)
3. What’s the future of Agriculture?
Shattering the Limitations of Generational Farming
JR: I think we’re coming up on a time now where the level of agricultural development that we have seen in other fields is now enabling us to answer questions in agriculture which were previously only answerable over generations of time. I think about a grower as getting really only 40 chances in their whole life to try something new – 40 growing seasons in their whole life, because of seasonality – and if they screw one of those things up, they may lose their farm.
So, you’ve got this kind of generational knowledge that happens, and maybe if your grandfather, then your father, and then you are (all) farmers, you’ve got about two generations of knowledge plus your own, so you’ve got a dataset of maybe 100. Because of the technological innovations we’ve seen in terms of the sensors and the ability to aggregate data, the rate which we’re going to be able to speed new innovations is growing, and is going to grow, exponentially.
My personal opinion on this is that much of what we have established today in agriculture is a function of working within the limitations of the produce as it has evolved or been bred today. I believe that the use of technologies like ours, in terms of optimizing the produce for operation in a human value chain, we’re going to be able to unlock trillions of dollars of lost value which is occurring in these value chains today, and be able to bring produce to consumers’ homes which is of a quality that is similar to something you’d grow in your backyard, with a level of seasonality that you would be able to get any food you wanted at any time. And, to dramatically mitigate waste on retail shelves, and then to bring the consumer, again, something as if it was harvested in their backyard.
So, my big thought around the future of agriculture is that with the use of new technology like the Apeel technology, we’re going to be able to completely re-define the food supply system and as a result, we’re going to be able to, again, unlock trillions of dollars in lost value and improve the overall marketable quality, nutritional density, and overall experience and biodiversity for consumers.
4. What are the top technological trends you’re seeing in Agriculture with respect to technology?
Mimicking Nature to Improve Agriculture, Naturally
JR: There are so many variables to understand when we look at agriculture. Plants, from my perspective – I’m biased – but plants are the most fascinating organisms on the planet. They co-evolve with other species, they’re amazing. They’re so complicated that when you don’t have the ability to capture and process large amounts of information, it’s really difficult to tease out what’s actually going on (within plants).
Now, with the level of sensors and ability to analyze data to study these systems, including peering down to the molecular level of what molecules nature is actually using to do all of this magic, these insights haven’t even been possible until the past decade. Now, we’re starting to get our hands around all this stuff, and by doing that, we’re not looking to go into a lab and create molecules that nature’s never seen before.
What we look at is, how is nature doing this today? What molecules is it using, and what strategies is it employing in order to persist without human intervention, and how can we employ those same molecules, those same strategies for the system to be more optimized for human consumption?
The Value of Limiting Human Intervention in Agricultural Evolution
We look at it as, how do we create a synergy with these plants? Because when plants evolved, they never had the evolutionary pressure on it to grow a lemon that would live in cold storage for nine months. The evolutionary pressure was for it to develop rapidly and ripen so that man will eat it, so that it can spread its seed.
But when you compare the shelf life of a lemon versus the shelf life of a strawberry, although they both employ the same type of protective coating, one of them is better optimized for longer storage time, whereas one of them is not optimized for longer storage time, although they’re both composed of the same material. What’s different is the structure of those materials. So, we draw inspiration from nature to say, ok, if the lemon is using the same materials as the strawberry is using, what if we could simply re-arrange the materials on a strawberry to resemble those structures that are on the surface of a lemon. And, by doing that, create a shelf life improvement in the strawberry that’s akin to the shelf life of a lemon.
We’re not coming up with this stuff. It’s not like we have a bunch of people going into a lab going, ‘alright, we’re going to figure out how to do this’, we’re literally copying exactly what nature is doing. We’re cheating, because we’re looking at what [nature] is doing, and then we’re just copying that. And the only reason we can do that is that we now have the tools to be able to see inside (plants and their products).
About James Rogers
James Rogers, PhD, is Founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences, a company fighting the global food waste crisis by utilizing advances in materials science to prevent waste in the first place—a sustainable approach to the world’s growing food demands. Dr. Rogers leads corporate strategy and Apeel’s team of award-winning scientists in developing plant-derived technologies that naturally keep fruits and vegetables fresh longer so less is wasted. Dr. Rogers received dual undergraduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University in Materials Science & Engineering and Biomedical Engineering and his PhD in Materials from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Rogers was the 2012 recipient of the Frank J. Padden Jr. Award in polymer physics, the premier polymer physics prize in the United States.