How Hazel Technologies keeps fresh fruit and vegetables from spoiling

Chicago-based Hazel Technologies is on a mission to reduce food waste. The company has developed packaging inserts that, through the magic of basic chemistry, can ward off fungus and mold and slow the spoilage of fruits and vegetables.

How big a problem is food waste? The most recent available reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found that each year we waste more than 25 billion pounds of post-harvest fruits and vegetables domestically, worth some $30 billion in value. That number is staggering, and even more depressing when you consider the 42.2 million people, including 6.4 million children, living without enough to eat in the U.S.

According to Hazel Technology’s CEO Aidan Mouat, the company’s BerryBrite and FruitBrite products were developed with farmers and food waste top of mind. They take the form of pads that fit into fruit containers, or sachets about the size of a sugar packet that can be tossed in alongside packed produce. The inserts actively emit ingredients including, respectively, ethylene inhibitors and anti-fungal agents.

Ethylene is a natural plant-ripening hormone. Inhibiting its production keeps produce looking and tasting better for a couple of weeks versus a couple of days. The active ingredient in Hazel Technologies’ FruitBrites packets is more specifically 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), which mimics the effects of ethylene but blocks ethylene receptors in produce. This molecule has been used commercially to keep food and flowers fresh in the past including by companies like AgroFresh and FloraLife.

The biodegradable and non-toxic packaging inserts allow farmers to extend the sale-ability of their fruits and vegetables without having to spray on any chemical solutions, Mouat said. And besides reducing food waste, his startup aims to help farmers sell into new markets. “The geographic range of produce distribution is limited by shelf-life. If I’m a Florida grower of starfruit, it’s hard to sell it in Vancouver. This technology allows me to get it all the way there in shape where customers and consumers will want it,” the CEO said.

In recent weeks, Hazel Technologies raised $800,000 to ramp up manufacturing, while developing new products. Rhapsody Venture Partners led the seed round joined by the donor-advised fund VentureWell and Valley Oak investments. The company, which was started by Northwestern University alumni, previously attained SBIR grant funding via the USDA.

Hazel Technologies’ investor Niko Hrdy, with Valley Oak Investments, said one reason he backed the company was that its products work with farmers’ and shippers’ existing infrastructure. “Their solutions are low cost with substantial, easy-to-measure benefits,” Hrdy said. “Many shippers and growers are already looking for new ways to ship food further, enter new markets, extend the growing season, and have less food rejected at the retail level.”

Given the funding, he expects the company to add employees to its ranks, and begin working with a wider number of growers and shippers around the world, especially throughout the agriculture hubs of the Americas.