Produce waste is a drag — an environmental one and an economic one, too. With 52% of fresh fruits and vegetables going to waste each year in the U.S, they make up a huge percentage the 133 billion tons of food Americans toss in landfills every year, contributing to 11% of the world’s carbon emissions and wasting $161 billion dollars annually. It’s disgusting. And never mind the incalculable karmic cost of tossing food when so many people go hungry every day.
If startup StixFresh has their way, those numbers will be zero. And they’re doing it not through a new-fangled invention or synthetic chemicals. They’re simply using two things that already exist: one, that little sticker on fruits and vegetables, and, two, those same fruits and vegetables’ natural self-defenses. FAROUT!
“Plants can’t run away from predators, so they’ve developed these secondary metabolites: compounds that protect them,” says StixFresh CEO Moody Soliman of his brand’s proprietary technology. The most apparent secondary metabolite is of course aroma — those sweet-smelling molecules that attract pollinators or repel predators — but plants’ other metabolites also protect them from detrimental environmental factors. StixFresh has found a way to isolate those compounds, extract them, and apply them to the non-adhesive side of a produce sticker. From there, “they’re slowly released over time to create this protective barrier that serves the same purpose as it did on the plant” to extend the product’s shelf life.
The results are astounding: StixFresh’s organic technology helps fruit last two weeks longer, meaning that organic banana you just bought won’t be rotten in two days, as they’re wont to do.
And if you think that’s incredible, check out StixFresh’s origin story: Inventor Zhafri Zainudin was at home in Kuala Lumpur, talking with a fruit vendor friend who struggled to sell his product before it went off. This cost the vendor money, but, most troubling to Zainudin, it cost his friends and neighbors the opportunity to enjoy fresh products’ flavor and nutrition. So, inspired to help his community, Zainudin researched organic ways to extend fruit and vegetables’ post-vine life. The more he learned about plant biology, the clearer the answer became: use the plant’s own natural defenses to keep it fresh. And he knew just how to do it: through the ubiquitous produce sticker that’s typically used for branding and UPC purposes. There would be no extra materials and no extra waste. It was perfect!
But having an idea and making it a reality are two different things, and Zainudin found himself at a dead end. He had no idea how to bring this idea to market. That is, however, until he traveled to Dubai for a conference and happened to meet Soliman, an engineer with a background in medical devices, and Steve Hulteng, a mechanical engineer who also worked in the medical field. Through this chance encounter, the men, along with microbiologist Dr. Patrick van Dijck, leveraged their disparate but complementary skills to create StixFresh, a product that could very well change the world. And it all began with a single fruit vendor’s off-the-cuff remark about rotten fruit.
“Great ideas do come from the most unusual places,” says Soliman. “Who would have known that — Steve and I are here in Seattle, we're working on all these different projects and unexciting stuff, and one day we connect with this inventor in Malaysia that invented a sticker, and we could then help him bring this technology to market and take it to new places.” And it’s for that reason that Soliman offers this advice to other founders: “Don't be scared to really go where you need to go to find the best people.”
Thus far StixFresh has perfected the formula for apples, pears, avocados, and mangoes, but still needs to find the right fit for other offerings. As Soliman explains, “Different fruits and different vegetables are susceptible to different factors that cause it to spoil. We have to identify what these factors are and develop a formulation that's safe and effective against these factors.” Rather than having one universal formula, StixFresh will have two or three, each optimized for multiple fruits.
Then there’s the matter of applying their technology to tiny fruits, such as berries or grapes. “The challenge is finding a delivery mechanism,” says Soliman. “That could be in the form of coating the actual inside of the bag, larger labels that are placed on the outside; there are different things that we're exploring in order to still be able to deliver the formulation to the fruit.”
As they tackle those small questions, the StixFresh team’s also thinking big, and their vision extends far beyond the produce aisle. For example, they’re looking into how they can salvage fresh flowers — “There’s lot of wastage there that happens because of them rotting, and spoilage.” — and they’re researching how they can apply their findings to fish, meat, and, really, anything else that spoils and ends up in a landfill.
While Soliman can’t reveal specific details about their business plans, he confirmed StixFresh is in conversation with some of the world’s largest grocery stores, produce growers, and distributors. “What we've particularly found exciting about this industry is how — No pun intended — but how hungry it is for technology, and how much room there is for innovation here!” And StixFresh is also chatting with Food Banks. “That's another area where Stixfresh could be very beneficial, because they get a lot of their produce that is at the end of their shelf life,” says Soliman.
And it’s here that we see the true potential for StixFresh: Sure, it can keep an individual’s apples from rotting on their counters, reducing their food waste and saving them money, but StixFresh’s positioned to help alleviate world hunger, and reduce waste, on a massive scale. As Soliman explains, “There are places around the world that struggle to provide sustainable nutritious food that's fresh and organic, primarily because of spoilage. And this could really benefit them — hopefully.”
In the more immediate future, StixFresh’s focused on getting to market, first with a limited release next month and then, if all goes well, a wider release in spring of 2020.
Until then, be sure to eat your fruits and vegetables!