Apr 12, 2022 - Technology

A startup is measuring ripeness to deliver perfect fruit

Illustration of an apple on a "Good/Bad" scale, with the scale arm hovering over "Good".

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A startup's novel sensor device — which measures the gas emitted by fruit as it ripens — is making inroads in ensuring that only peak-ripe produce makes its way to grocery shelves, ideally reducing food waste.

Why it matters: The USDA estimates that 30%-40% of the food supply isn't consumed. IoT sensors from Strella Biotechnology determine which pieces of fruit should be put up for sale and when — making it more likely that consumers will savor them, not toss them.

Driving the news: Strella Biotech, a 3-year-old startup led by science prodigy Katherine Sizov, already works with half the nation's pear- and apple-packing houses, monitoring storerooms to recommend which fruits should be sent to market based on their maturity.

  • The company's iPhone-size sensors monitor ethylene, a gas that fruits and vegetables produce.
  • Strella has tracked billions of apples and pears, and is starting to work with kiwi fruit as it's shipped to the U.S. from Australia and New Zealand.
  • The next frontier: avocados.

In the typical grocery store, "the avocados are either way too hard or way too mushy," says Sizov, who developed the technology as an undergraduate studying molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • "You end up spending two bucks apiece for a whole bag, and then half of them go bad before you even put them away."
  • Most farmers rely on intuition and data to select the fruit they send to market, Sizov tells Axios, "but by the time it gets to Costco or Walmart or Target, they're basically getting a black box."
An IoT biosensor from Strella Biotech
One of Strella Biotechnology's IoT sensors. Photo courtesy of Strella Biotechnology

Where it stands: By working with large retailers, Strella has found "that just by changing the order in which they're sending product to the store, and the order in which they're receiving product, we're able to reduce the shrink — or food waste — on the store shelf by up to 50%," Sizov says.

  • 92% of consumers pick their grocery store based on the quality of produce, she says — so reducing the amount of "yucky fruit" translates to happier and more loyal customers.

The big picture: The "agtech" sector, which aims to improve crop yields and food quality using technology improvements, has attracted lots of capital.

  • Strella is backed by Millennium Technology Value Partners, Mark Cuban, Yamaha Motor Ventures and GV, formerly known as Google Ventures.

How it works: "An apple in a grocery store can be over a year old by the time you eat it," Sizov says. "They're stored in these massive storage rooms, or packing houses."

  • A packer has dozens of storage rooms, each filled with millions of pieces of fruit, and they're "playing a little bit of a game show game, where it's like, 'behind which door is the right produce?" Sizov says.
  • By putting sensors inside the storage rooms, "we can tell two months in advance of the fruit spoiling in there that it's going to do so."

What's next: Ultimately, Strella aims to use its system to improve the 10 produce items that the USDA says contribute most to food waste, which include apples, pears, avocados, bananas, mangoes and kiwi.

  • "One of the main challenges is we’re working with multi-generational farmers and packers and we’re asking them to do something differently, and it takes some time for them to trust that," says Jacob Jordan, co-founder of Strella.
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