Given the increasingly unpredictable nature of global weather patterns and the destabilizing effects of a warming planet on the environment, humanity is being asked to become more agile and adaptable than ever before. The Central Coast of California has seen all too clearly how devastating extreme weather events can be to ecosystems and communities. They have also quickly seen how vulnerable the dependable natural resources can become. One of the most critical of these resources is the ability to grow and distribute fresh food.
Enter Apeel Sciences, a nature-inspired technology company based in Santa Barbara that has created an innovative product which has the potential to help reduce global hunger by helping farmers conserve resources and reduce the use of harmful chemicals. Supported by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, Apeel is already making waves on an international scale.
Their product, Edipeel, uses plant-derived technology to protect crops, both pre and post-harvest, helping to reduce food spoilage as well as reliance on chemicals. When applied to produce, Edipeel forms an imperceptibly thin “peel” of edible plant material on the surface of the fruit that naturally slows water loss and oxidation—the factors that cause spoilage.
Ultimately, this means that the same amount of food can be grown and can feed many more people. Less food wasted could also mean greater conservation of energy and water, which itself could result in increased economic opportunity for farmers all over the world. CEO and Founder of Apeel Sciences, James Rogers, says “Perishability is the main culprit of this waste, and so, we believe there is tremendous opportunity for stopping it before it even happens.” In developing nations, spoilage is an even greater issue due to the lack of access to refrigeration. It was this aspect of promise that piqued the interest of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a strong commitment to increasing agricultural production in the world’s poorest nations.
The first inklings of inspiration for creating Apeel came to Rogers during one of his regular commutes between Santa Barbara and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab where he was conducting his PhD research. As he drove through miles of agricultural land in the central valley, the thought occurred to him one day, “If we are fortunate enough to have these seeds you can throw in the ground that passively absorb water and passively absorb sunlight and then produce food…how are there people on this planet going hungry? How are we screwing this up so badly?” This question gnawed at him for the remainder of the drive.
It was later that he remembered something that he’d learned about as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University where he double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. He recalled learning about the invaluable chemical process that had been discovered by metallurgists which protected steel from rusting – a process that occurs because of oxidation. He wondered if a similar idea could be applied to fresh produce to protect it from oxidation (spoilage) for greater periods of time. He knew, however, that the process would have to involve chemicals that were natural and edible so that they were safe to consume. But was such a thing possible? As Rogers recounts, “I pulled out my old biochemistry textbook to see if there were any suitable barrier-forming materials available in the foods we eat already. Lo and behold, I opened to Chapter 11 and right there, staring me in the face, were all the possible molecules you could ever need to create an edible barrier made entirely of food!” The rest is history – in the making.
With $40M total funding raised to-date, Apeel Sciences has the attention and the confidence of many, especially in its local community. Rogers explains, “the Santa Barbara community has been extremely supportive of us and we feel fortunate to be so close to UCSB – home to some of the brightest scientists and innovators in the world. Santa Barbara has been a truly incredible place to grow our team and operations. Everyone is very supportive of our innovation and motivated to help us fight the massive global food waste problem.” It appears that Apeel’s lofty goals of helping solve some of the world’s greatest hunger issues may not be so far fetched.