The US throws away an astonishing amount of food: 40 percent of food in the US goes to waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

One big reason? Food spoils fast, and grocery stores often toss product as it approaches its expiration date.

That’s the problem Hazel Technologies, a food tech startup with Northwestern University roots, is aiming to fix. The startup’s proprietary product–a biodegradable capsule called FruitBrite that distributes ethylene inhibitors–can double the shelf life of most fruits and vegetables by essentially slowing the aging process in plants. This week, they won the top $500,000 prize at the Clean Energy Trust to bring their tech to market.

FruitBrite tech (Courtesy of Hazel Technologies)
FruitBrite tech (Courtesy of Hazel Technologies)

Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies believes that tech needs to play a role in ensuring food isn’t wasted.

“While supply chain innovation, locavores, and other fantastic movements that have happened in the industry lately are definitely the wave of the future, the problem is so big we really need to address the problem…with a technological response,” he told Chicago Inno.

Hazel Technologies believes the solution to that big problem is a biodegradable capsule the size of an apple, called FruitBrite. It’s a proprietary delivery mechanism for ethylene inhibitors, which block the aging hormone in plants. While Mouat says ethylene inhibitors have been available for some time, what’s been missing is “an effective, safe, easy to use, cheap method of delivering that gas to the produce in question.”

Each FruitBrite capsule can treat about 2,000 cubic square feet of space–for example, one capsule could treat a produce truck. Grocery stores, distributors, and packers simply place the capsule in the space they need treated, and the capsule delivers the ethylene inhibitor into the atmosphere. Each capsule works for about two weeks. Hazel Technologies will work with clients on a contract basis and determine the price for a treatment depending on each client’s needs–which will likely range from $175 to $500 per treatment said Mouat.

FruitBrite can treat nearly any fruit, vegetable, and nut, including common produce such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onion, leafy greens, and broccoli. It can also be used on plants and ornamental flowers. The amount of extra shelf life produce gets with FruitBrite varies by fruit and vegetable: an apple can last up to a month, and a banana can get an extra two weeks, Mouat said. However, the tech doesn’t work with citrus fruits, berries, or grapes.

This spring they’re starting five pilot programs with various potential customers: two local distributors, a grocery store, a flower store, and an organization that redistributes produce overstock. Though they’ll be starting on the B2B side, Hazel Technologies views its tech as a “platform technology” and that ultimately they’d like to retool the tech to integrate into devices like refrigerators and tupperware containers.

The startup is in the middle of a finance round, and recently have won a variety of grants and funds. In addition to $500,000 from the Clean Energy Trust, Hazel Technologies recently received a USDA Phase I SBIR grant for $100,000,  plus about $25,000 in funding from Venturewell, the Northwestern Universtiy Venture Challenge (NUVC), and the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

Hazel Technologies team after their CET win (Courtesy of Hazel Technologies)
Hazel Technologies team after their CET win (Courtesy of Hazel Technologies)

Hazel Technologies was first founded during an NUvention class, a course run through Northwestern that brings students from a variety of disciplines together to work on innovations in areas such as energy, analytics, and medicine. Nearly all the team members are either current Northwestern students or alums. While the underlying basis for the tech was done by a Northwestern researcher, cofounders Mouat and Adam Preslar, who both have PhDs in chemistry from Northwestern, are the lead investigators for FruitBrite, and Hazel Technologies holds the IP for their tech.

Mouat added that though the product is synthetic, it doesn’t affect the organic status of products and has been approved by the EPA. He added that innovations such as this, while not straight from nature, have a place in our sustainable food future.

“I just want people to stop people from being afraid of chemistry,” he said. “We’re all here today because of chemistry. If we do it the right way then it doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We want to provide high tech solutions as responsibly as a company can in this day and age. That’s what we need.”

“People under-appreciate the role that technology has played in making the planet what it is today, it would be irresponsible to say that we could have large scale agriculture, large scale energy…without the advances technology has provided us,” he added.

Note: the post has been updated to reflect that Hazel Technologies has not made sales yet, and they raised $25,000 in funding total from sources outside the Clean Energy Trust.

Image credit: Pixabay CC0