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This Bill Gates-backed start-up is fighting world hunger by making your avocados last longer

This Bill Gates-backed start-up is battling world hunger with avocados that last twice as long
This Bill Gates-backed start-up is battling world hunger with avocados that last twice as long

The next avocados you buy at a grocery store might stay fresh at least twice as long as they used to, and it's all because James Rogers didn't listen to his mother.

Rogers is the founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences, a Southern California-based food technology startup that is trying to battle food waste. It's a problem that the United Nations estimates costs the world roughly $2.6 trillion each year, much of which stems from fruits, vegetables and other perishable foods going bad before they're consumed.

Rogers' Apeel, recently named to the 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 List, thinks it can combat the problem of food waste with its primary product, a tasteless, odorless, edible coating made from plant materials. Apeel can keep produce like avocados or oranges from going bad for weeks longer than usual — it can double the shelf life in some cases — even without refrigeration.

The trick to keeping produce from spoiling, Rogers tells CNBC Make It, is relatively simple. "The two leading causes of produce spoilage are water loss and oxidation — that's water evaporating out of the produce and oxygen getting in," Rogers says.

The point of the Edipeel coating is, simply, to act as a physical barrier that slows down the evaporation process and regulates how much oxygen gets into produce. And because Apeel makes its invisible coating out of the fatty acids and other organic compounds taken from the peels, seeds and pulp of other fruits and vegetables, the FDA has deemed it safe to eat. Avocados sprayed with Edipeel are already being sold at grocery stores like Kroger, Costco and Harps Food Stores across the U.S.

"Our philosophy is: The only thing that belongs on food is food," Rogers tells CNBC Make It.

Rogers founded Apeel in 2012 and the company has raised a total of $110 million in funding from investors who include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as investment firms Viking Global Investors and Andreessen Horowitz.

Rogers, 33, got the idea for Apeel when he was working on his Ph.D. in materials science at UC Santa Barbara, where he was trying to develop a solar paint that could harvest the sun's energy much like solar panels. One day in 2012, he was driving between Santa Barbara and the university's Berkeley Lab and he was listening to a podcast about world hunger while looking out at acre after acre of abundant farmland. He wondered why so many people in the world were going hungry (roughly one in 10 people) when the world actually produces more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet.

"The problem came down to distribution," Rogers says he came to learn. "We couldn't get the food that was being grown to where the people were who need to eat it. And so I was curious what precludes us from distributing food and it all comes down to this notion of perishability."

Rogers started researching how water loss and oxidation spoil produce, and it reminded him of how the steel industry uses coatings to prevent metal from rusting. He thought he could come up with a similar solution to coat produce and prevent fruits and vegetables from spoiling so quickly.

It was kind of a wild idea, especially considering Rogers had no agricultural experience, which is exactly what his mother told him when he called her and explained his idea for fighting world hunger by inventing a protective coating for produce.

"I called my mom and I said, 'Hey, Mom, I got this idea for a company,'" Rogers tells CNBC Make It. "And, she said, 'That sounds really nice, but you don't know anything about about fruits and vegetables.'"

Rogers had to admit that his mother was right, but he didn't let that stop him from diving into his idea. He went to the library and checked out a pile of books about the biology of plants.

In fact, he learned enough that he was able to flesh out his idea and apply for a research grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave him $100,000 that marked the beginning of Apeel. Rogers hired two researchers he knew from his Ph.D. program and they got to work developing the product that would become Apeel.

Six years later, Rogers has legitimate hope that Apeel can make a real difference in fighting the global hunger epidemic. Apeel's business is starting to take off thanks to selling the coating to major fruit and vegetable producers like Del Rey Avocado, Horton Fruit and Eco Farmsand, and partnering with US retailers (who currently lose more than $18 billion a year due to wasted food). But, Apeel is also working with farmers in Kenya and Nigeria, where Edipeel is awaiting regulatory approval, in order to help them keep their produce fresh long enough to be transported from rural areas to larger markets where they can feed the local population.

At the moment, Apeel's coating is only being sold on avocados, but the company is also working on selling it to produce growers to use on asparagus and various citrus fruits, among other produce. (The Apeel formula differs for each variety of fruit or vegetable.)

Looking back now, Rogers can chuckle at the fact that his mom initially threw cold water on his produce plans. But, he says there's an important lesson in that story. "Don't not do something because there's a part of it you don't know about," he tells CNBC Make It.

Instead of giving up because you're not fully versed on something, even if it's a major aspect of what you want to do, you can just commit to learning more and filling in those gaps in your knowledge, Rogers says. "It's oftentimes the combination of the stuff that you know about and the willingness to learn the stuff that you don't know about which leads to some really cool innovations."

Correction: This story has been revised to reflect that coating is now called Apeel. 

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