Apeel Sciences founder and CEO James Rogers was more concerned with paint than produce when he first came up with the idea for the company.
At the time, Rogers was getting his PhD in Materials Sciences, developing a solar paint that could harvest energy. But after hearing a story on the radio about global hunger, he found himself wondering why such a thing existed if an abundance of food was grown every year.
The culprit, as Rogers would discover, wasn’t a lack of food; it was food spoilage. Thus Apeel Sciences was born, and Rogers and his team set to work developing a plant-based peel for produce that, once applied, extends the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. The product, called Apeel, acts as a barrier that retains water inside the produce longer and regulates how fast oxygen gets in.
Stepping away from paint for a moment, Rogers used his background in materials sciences to address the problem, applying the same concepts metallurgists used when creating a coating to protect steel from the elements. Since produce, like iron, degrades when exposed to environmental conditions for a long period of time, couldn’t we use the same solution—a barrier—to slow down the decay?
In trying to answer that question, Rogers discovered that everything needed to create such a barrier already exists—in the food itself. Out of that revelation, (and a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation), Apeel was born.
To create that barrier for produce, Apeel basically takes parts of plants left behind on farms (e.g., tomato rinds, seeds and pulps) and extracts particular lipids from them. Those lipids are then combined in specific ratios, which vary depending on the produce, to create the ideal protective barrier for each fruit and vegetable.
From there, the company sends its specialized Apeel to farmers and suppliers in the form a lightweight powder, which they combine with water and apply to the produce. “Once applied, [Apeel] leaves behind an imperceptible amount of edible plant material on the surface of the fruit that naturally slows down water loss and oxidation—the factors that cause fresh food to spoil,” says Michelle Masek, Head of Marketing for Apeel.
Of course, the product’s main appeal (please kill me for that) is that consumers will have food that stays fresher longer, and isn’t coated in wax for protection against the elements. For example, Masek says Apeel can, “at minimum,” double the shelf life of avocados. Considering that (at least up north) most avocados are already shriveling by the time they hit the major chain grocery stores, that’s welcome news.
But it’s not just consumers who win with the longer shelf life. “It benefits every member of the fresh food supply chain by minimizing waste and extending the transportability of the produce [for] farmers, shippers and retailers,” says Masek. In other words, less waste and longer transport time windows are a win for everyone involved in getting food from the farm to the store.
Right now, Apeel Sciences works with everyone from smallholder farmers and local organic growers to large food brands. It’s currently only focused on fresh produce. Masek also assures me the company is scaling as we speak: “We’re ramped up in a new 105k square-foot facility in Goleta, California where, as an example of scale, we can make enough product to service the global avocado supply.”
Whether the company does end up serving the global supply of avocados isn’t clear. By some accounts, the produce industry didn’t exactly welcome Apeel with open arms. That said, few industries have a uniformly positive reaction when a new player comes in with a “disruptive” idea. And with $40 million in funding so far, plus support from the Gates foundation, Apeel may very well have a real shot at replacing that wax that covers the produce at your local grocer.