This is one in a series of interviews for the 2018 Impact Challenge finalists at Business Today’s 44th International Conference.
Around forty percent of all fresh produce is wasted before it gets to the table. Strella, a finalist at this year’s Impact Challenge seed-funding competition, seeks to address this very issue of food waste. The team, led by Katherine Sizov and Reginald Lamaute, has created a biosensor that can accurately predict when apples in storage rooms have become ripe.
In the past, packers and distributors would randomly select a room of apples to bring into grocery stores like Costco or Kroger. With Strella Biotech’s tool, a 6x6x4 inches sensor can monitor the status of storage rooms with over a million apples. Placed in the corner of the room, the sensor translates communications from plant-to-plant on how ripe they are to inform the packer on the ripeness of the entire package. The tool helps the packer optimally select a batch of ripe apples, thus reducing spoilage costs and waste of overripe apples. With grocery stores often selling apples that are eight months to a year-and-a-half old, sprayed with unnatural chemicals to preserve their taste and appearance, Strella’s novel device seeks to meet the high year-round demand for apples without sacrificing the quality and number of apples ready to be sold as fresh produce in markets.
The social impact of Strella is quite significant, too. In the words of Strella’s founder, Katherine, Strella aims to “reduce global food waste from the supply chain.” The company addresses three of the UN’s sustainable development goals. The first, zero hunger, is met with Strella’s attempt to optimize the supply chain, so “we can use less arable land for agriculture and as a result use it to increase [the] biodiversity of our planet or increase the living conditions of humans.” The second goal, responsible consumption and production, is met through Strella’s model, which encourages consumers to be more responsible and aware in the process of purchasing their food. Ultimately, Katherine and Sanjula meet the third goal, which is industry, innovation, and infrastructure, as they believe that technology is a win-win situation: they’re both saving money and the planet with their new biosensor.
The development of Strella Biotech, nonetheless, is rooted in their team. Katherine and Reginald both have backgrounds in biochemical sciences, which is helpful as their product is both half-based in biology and half-based in hardware; likewise, Katherine has a focus on neurogenetics while Reginald’s experience is concentrated in materials engineering. The team is further supported by an electrical engineer, who supports the IoT functions of the device; a Wharton student leading the finances for the company; and interns that study the field of bioengineering. Of course, despite the robust technical nature of the team, Katherine admits that one of the great challenges in their company’s development was their entrance into the ag space, a relatively new experience for all members of Strella.
In the journey of creating Strella, Reginald expresses that perhaps the greatest lesson learned was the proactive nature of working within a startup. An apt analogy he uses is that founders are similar to students who finish their homework immediately after it is given. “You don’t have the time to have delays when something comes up and when something needs to be addressed.” Strella will expand its impact by eventually using its biosensor to detect ripeness in other fruits, further eliminating waste in the agricultural and food sector. With the progress that Strella has made, it’s evident that Reginald’s words remain true; there sure won’t be a rotten apple stopping them in their way.