Waste not, want not: Biochemistry innovation prevents perishable food spoilage

Happy Friday afternoon, everyone! You know the old saying: All it takes is one bad apple to ruin the bunch. Chicago-based Hazel Technologies’ innovations root out those bad apples … and mangoes and kiwi and avocados and … well, you get the picture. The biotechnology preserves produce and reduces food waste. The business aims to transform the food supply chain and bring attention to the fact that waste doesn’t just occur at the end of the line.

After today’s tech headlines, hear about the inventions and how CEO and Co-Founder Aidan Mouat says they “enhance the sustainability of the food supply without adding any chemicals or harmful residues.”

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Today’s headlines:

🔌 POWER GRID: A new artificial intelligence-driven decision-making model developed at Argonne National Laboratory can help power grid operators better control systems to strengthen grid resiliency.

🚜 AGRICULTURE: In an interview with Successful Farming, the director of sourcing and operations sustainability for Minneapolis-based General Mills talks about how the company relies on suppliers who use regenerative farming, including sustainability-oriented technologies, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

🔀 NEW POSITION: Rebecca White has been named executive director of the Preston, Minnesota-based Algae Biomass Organization, a nonprofit that promotes the commercialization of renewable and sustainable products derived from algae. She has worked for several biofuel and biotech companies and helped launch youth education programs.

🦅 DRONES: A Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) drone has been recovered from Lake Michigan following a high-profile, unsuccessful encounter with a bald eagle. The $950 device is missing a propeller but otherwise is mostly unscathed. It had been documenting shoreline erosion. EGLE drone operators are examining innovative methods to protect both drones and birds of prey from future interactions.

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Now, more on Hazel Technologies, which develops sustainable packaging materials and inserts that prevent perishable foods from spoiling.

CEO Aidan Mouat told me the company develops sustainable biochemical technologies that mimic processes in nature to control food’s shelf life. This protects foods throughout the supply chain: in transit, at storage facilities, and in stores.

“Agriculture is the largest business in the world and it’s guaranteed to touch every human every day… I think we’re due for a revolution,” Mouat said, adding that “chemistry” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

The problem: Food waste is an enormous global problem and a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re producing lots of calories all over the planet, but every year we waste 30-40% of what’s grown,” Mouat said. “If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet behind the United States and China. Food waste may possibly be the single biggest outstanding problem in the world.”

Food waste also results in the loss of resources such as water and fuel.

The technology: The company takes bioactive compounds that were already on the market and delivers them in new ways to make them applicable to a wider range of crops. It tailors innovations to individual crops. “There is no such thing as one technology that fits all. … Every major crop has physical and biological differences. What’s good for an apple is not good for an avocado,” Mouat said.

Hazel’s flagship product is an ethylene inhibitor packet. Ethylene is a gas released by produce as it ages. The packets are put in customers’ produce shipments and can last from one to two months. Other solutions include antimicrobial products to prevent mold, yeast, and fungus growth and anti-sprouting products for root vegetables.

The impact: The company has 150 clients in 12 countries and this year is on track to treat 3.2 billion pounds of food; an estimated 5 million pounds will be saved from going to waste, which is the equivalent of 300,000 metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere, Mouat said.

The inventions allow produce to be picked later, when it’s actually ripe, which provides more nutrition as well as better taste.

The backstory: Hazel’s five founders met at Northwestern University during an entrepreneurial course focused on creating a sustainable technology business plan. It incorporated in 2015 and the first product went to market in 2016. It has raised $18 million in private equity over the past five years in addition to about $1 million in grants, most of which are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Key challenge: A lot of startups launch just to turn a profit, but Hazel wanted to “better the customer and better the world, not just operate as a business,” Mouat said. Founders have worked hard to gain customer trust and prove they’re genuinely interested in helping the community they serve.

What’s next: Hazel Technologies will continue to grow the number of crops for which it has solutions, plus it plans to expand to proteins such as meat and fish. It’s examining full-packaging solutions for paper, cardboard, or plastic packaging with the metabolic-slowing biochemistry already integrated to eliminate the need for a separate packet; this could also be used for ready-to-eat foods.

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