As a PhD candidate in materials science at UC Santa Barbara, James Rogers used to think a lot about food waste. But when he told his mom he wanted to apply his training in polymer physics to the produce industry, she dismissed the idea.
"She said, 'it sounds really nice, but you don't know anything about fruits and vegetables," says Rogers, laughing. He didn't listen to the warning, though.
Instead, Rogers founded Apeel Sciences, a 2018 CNBC Disruptor, backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Bill Gates, among others.
The premise of the company is simple: to reduce food waste by extending the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. But the science to do it is complex.
Apeel uses plant-based materials like the peels of fruits and vegetables to create an invisible, natural coating. The coating is thin, invisible, doesn't have a taste and has the FDA designation of "generally recognized as safe." It starts off as a powder, which is mixed with water to create a solution into which fruits and vegetables are dipped. The resulting protective seal slows down the rate of water loss and the oxidation process, extending the shelf life of the treated fruits and vegetables by weeks and in some cases, doubling the shelf life.
"It means you're throwing out less produce and it means higher quality produce in your refrigerator," says Rogers. "We're slowing down the rate the clock is ticking. And by doing that, you have more of an opportunity to enjoy the food in your home, and you're going to be throwing away a lot less of it."
Costco and grocery chain Harps Food Stores have begun selling avocados coated with Apeel's products, which Rogers says doubles the amount of time they can stay on store shelves before spoiling. The move could give the retailers a leg up on the competitive grocery business by reducing supply costs. A recent study by reFed, an organization comprised of non-profit groups like the Rockefeller Foundation and big food companies like General Mills and Walmart, reports food waste costs U.S. retailers more than $18 billion dollars.
"There's tremendous opportunities for cost savings in supply chain," says Rogers. "Right now, we're just interested in reducing shrink on the shelves, and by doing that, we can dramatically improve sales in different produce categories."
Rogers says they are talking to other big retailers as well, but can't name names. While some argue it might be tough to win over customers who might be wary of a coating – albeit tasteless – on their produce, Rogers challenges customers to take a bite out of Apeel's fruits and vegetables.
"We want consumers to go the stores and look for this label," says Rogers, adding the company hopes to someday tackle the problem on a global scale. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. reports food waste costs $2.6 trillion worldwide.
"We're not thinking about this as only being a solution in one small area of the world. We're thinking really big," says Rogers.