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Katherine Sizov and
Jay Jordan

Fighting food waste with fresh data

Katherine Sizov

CEO & Founder

Strella Biotechnology

When she learned that 40% of all food is wasted before it’s consumed, Katherine Sizov set out to find out why and see what she could do about it. She met Jay Jordan at a networking event while still in college in Philadelphia, and together they founded Strella Biotechnology, a data-driven enterprise committed to improving the supply chain for produce, ensuring higher quality and less waste.

What led you down this path?

Katherine: I thought that level of food waste was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Then I realized I had no idea where my produce came from, so I set out to figure that out.

I went to apple growers and packers, and they told me all about what they do, and it was fascinating. Basically, the food supply chain operates the same way the paper towel supply chain works, meaning a perishable product is handled the same way as a static commodity. It seemed to make sense that maybe if we treated produce like the biological organisms they are, we could be smarter about what we do with them.

How big is the problem of food waste?

Katherine: The carbon emissions on food waste are greater than all transportation combined, which is crazy because we think about cars as being a huge problem. But the reality is, it’s actually food waste.

Jay: Also, something like 6% of all global fresh water is wasted on food that’s not being consumed.

How does Strella tackle that problem?

Jay: If your grandma ever told that you could ripen an avocado faster if you put it in a paper bag with a banana, she was right. It’s because the banana’s releasing ethylene and the avocado’s sensing it, and that’s telling the avocado to ripen faster. So we kind of know it colloquially, but now we understand it scientifically.

Katherine: Yeah. If you’ve ever heard “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” that’s true too. That’s because of these gases that apples emit as they’re ripening.

Jay: It’s something the industry has known for 50, 60 years. The new thing that we’re doing is figuring out how to gather that data and use it to make better decisions.

So how did you turn that into a business?

Katherine: It started out as basically a science project. We put the first sensor devices in the field with a company that wasn’t a customer, they were just a packer testing it for us. They said, “Wow, you saved us $600,000. All my apples would’ve gone to applesauce if I hadn’t used your device.” And that’s when we realized this was something we could do as a business.

Can you tell me about the device you developed?

Jay: It’s a sensor that sits on the ground in these really big, controlled atmosphere (CA) rooms. They’ll put, like, 5 million apples in a room and store them for up to a year, and they do that by removing the oxygen and making them really cold. Our device will sense this gas all year long and send a wireless signal through concrete using IoT networks. So it makes it really easy for our customers to get data. It just comes automatically through the cloud and then enters their inbox.

Apples can be stored for that long?

Katherine: Yeah. Apples are mostly a domestic product, which means that they’re picked in the fall, around the time we all go with friends and families to the orchard. But you can get an American apple in July, and that’s because of the CA storage facilities. So a packer who’s responsible for storing the fruit has dozens of storage rooms and each one is filled with 5 million pieces of fruit, and they’re playing a bit of a guessing game — behind which door is the most mature product?

The way that they typically do it is by relying on all of their past experiences. They know Farmer Joe has got great Granny Smith apples, and his apples will keep for longer than someone else’s. But it’s still a guessing game. With the sensors, we monitor the fruit as it’s ripening, and we can tell about two months in advance of it spoiling that it’s going to. That helps the packer decide which storage rooms to ship first.

Jay: It’s a very fast-paced industry because everything’s perishable. Things move really quickly and there’s an incredible amount of volume. We pride ourselves in giving people actionable recommendations of what to do, not just a bunch of data to decipher themselves.

How did that first device get built?

Katherine: I built the first device, but I didn’t know how to get a signal from the device all the way to the cloud. You’re talking about a room filled with five million apples. It’s enormous and an apple is basically water. It’s very hard to grab a wireless signal out of a room like that. So I found Zuyang Liu, another student, who was kind of the first guy to come on board, and he figured that out.

Jay: He got the core IoT technology right and we’ve just improved on it since then. The fundamentals of measuring ethylene gas have been there from the beginning, but how we do that changes all the time. We get better and better at doing it over time, so we are more and more confident in what we’re recommending.

How many customers do you have now, and do you have plans to expand?

Jay: We have 18 customers and there are about 45 apple packers in the U.S. We’re working with nine of the top 11, about 72% of the U.S. supply of apples and pears. We’re looking into doing work in kiwis, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, mangoes — basically fruits that ripen; the tasty fruits that we all love.

Katherine: Also flowers. Flowers have the same exact type of communication.

How would you say you live at the intersection of creativity and technology?

Katherine: I think part of it is looking at an industry or a problem in a new light. In our case, people have known for decades that fruits communicate with each other, but no one has developed an actionable technology. We were able to think about that idea and come up with something new.

How do you foster creativity in your company?

Jay: We hire only people who want to do new things and want to be challenged. Almost every single day we’re faced with something we never thought we would have to solve, things that are completely new to us. I’ve learned electrochemistry, we’ve learned about IoT networks. We’ve learned all kinds of new things.

Katherine: I think promoting inquisitiveness amongst the team and having people ask hard questions is really important to moving forward.

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