Food waste in the crosshairs of NUvention entrepreneurs

By Bryce Gray

That tomato on your salad and other produce items across the U.S. endure an odyssey of more than 1,300 miles from the field to your local grocery store. That journey not only costs energy, but also time that cuts into shelf life and contributes to $7 billion worth of domestic food waste annually.

When it comes to freshness, the dizzying logistics of this system require food to be picked when under-ripe and treated with chemicals and costly refrigeration until it reaches far-off consumers.

“This is a very complex system,” said Aidan Mouat, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate and the CEO of Hazel Technologies, speaking at last week’s end-of-term presentations for entrepreneurial NUvention Energy students at Northwestern University. “We’d like to say, ‘Let’s stop all that. Let’s just come up with a solution that works well and drops into a number of different spaces and just stops that senescence process – that ripening process.’”

Mouat and his colleagues say that solution is their product called FruitBrite – a small orb filled with a patented, biodegradable chemical compound designed to inhibit ethylene, a hormone that controls aging in plants. By regulating ethylene levels, the product seeks to provide “produce retailers with a unique solution to ripeness control.”

Mouat said that the product is currently intended for use in enclosed storage spaces – such as coolers or produce crates. The group hopes grocers could eventually include the orbs in their display cases, where spoilage takes a heavy toll.

But Hazel Technologies’ overture was just one of two compelling business pitches that offered some fresh ideas on the subject of spoiled food.

Another incubator business named Food-e would, according to CEO A.J. Singletary, convert “the current food waste problem into a bioenergy opportunity.” The enterprise would outfit restaurants with specialized dumpsters for storing organic waste. Food-e then intends to gather food waste collected citywide and convert it into electricity at an anaerobic digestion plant.

Food-e is aiming to occupy a niche in Boston – one of a growing number of cities and states where food waste bans have been implemented. Singletary, a joint business and law school student, explained that the restaurant industry became a logical target since it does not currently have an incentive to reduce food waste, “because served food equals sold food.”

Launched in 2010, NUvention Energy is a graduate-level course that exposes students from diverse academic backgrounds to the entrepreneurial process – from the idea stage to the operation of a start-up business. The student teams that presented their business plans at last week’s exhibition will receive feedback from a panel of advisors later this week. There are resources available to teams that wish to pursue their ideas beyond the end of the academic term.

Other projects showcased were:

-Aquantics, a company planning to minimize water usage in large buildings through a monitoring and feedback system.

-Emreso, a firm dedicated to using electromagnetic pulses to improve aerial surveys of underground oil reserves, allowing for less-wasteful oil recovery.

-GTrans, which unveiled their effort to decrease the risk of explosions in lithium ion batteries while also increasing battery life.

-INjoo Networks, creators of software designed to maximize energy efficiency in large office buildings.

-ReCaF (an abbreviation for Recycled Carbon Fuels), a start-up committed to producing methanol – a gas additive – out of carbon dioxide captured from cement plants.

-StayFlexible, enterprising the use of improved conductors for use in wearable sensors.

-TerraWatt, developers of an energy storage system that would enable mines to dodge excessive demand charges for power consumption.

Photo at top: Aidan Mouat, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern and CEO of Hazel Technologies, introduces FruitBrite, designed to keep produce fresh during shipping. Entrepreneur teams with “NUvention Energy” pitched their inventions, competing for investment funding. (Bryce Gray/Medill)