When James Rogers, CEO of Apeel Sciences, was working on his PhD in flexible solar panel technology at UC Santa Barbara, he thought he’d be playing a big role in developing sub-nanometer thin-film photovoltaic panels and other related technologies. Little did he realize that at some point in the future he’d be transferring some of the technology concepts he’d been developing to protect produce.

During a trip through the Salinas “Salad Bowl,” he realized the problem in feeding the world was not necessarily in growing food, but keeping it viable once picked and transported. He thought about the concept of stainless steel and how molybdenum and chromium atoms create a thin, protective surface layer on the stainless steel, keeping it from rusting.

Since fruit and produce quickly oxidize after being picked, and their storage in humid environments induces mold growth, Rogers thought it would be possible to develop a protective organic barrier or “peel” that could be applied to keep fresh product internally moist, yet allow a semi-permeable gas exchange—and keep it dry enough to discourage mold or bacteria growth.

Rogers now has a successful startup called Apeel Sciences, which employs 65 scientists, 15 of them PhDs. The company has pre-harvest and post-harvest products to keep fruits and vegetables fresher for a longer period of time—anywhere from two to five times the normal shelf life.

Apeel’s products are entirely plant-based, edible and FDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe) approved. The post-harvest product (Edipeel) can protect raspberries and strawberries, as well as citrus and other produce, eliminating the need for wax coatings, as Rogers explains.

FE: What exactly is Edipeel?

James Rogers: Edipeel is a natural, invisible, edible, plant-based alternative to fungicides, waxes and chemical preservatives. The product we created consists of a thin layer or barrier made from natural plant extracts, which protects produce from abiotic stressors that cause it to spoil—like water loss and oxidation—as well as biotic factors like bacteria and fungus. We take the parts of plants that typically go unused on the farm after harvest, like broccoli stalks and strawberry leaves, and repurpose them to create the Edipeel solution that can be applied to food crops and keep them fresh up to five times longer. The materials we use to create Edipeel are ubiquitous and are the building blocks that all plants use to create structure.

FE: How does it work?

Rogers: Two of the leading causes of produce spoilage are water loss and oxidation. The question I asked myself was: If the same elements that cause iron to rust are the same culprits for produce spoilage, could we solve the problem in the same way as metallurgists did for stainless steel—by using a thin, protective barrier? But instead of using chromium and/or molybdenum, could we use edible materials? By creating an ultra-thin barrier that can be measured on the order of nanometers on the outside of the produce, we help keep moisture inside, all while protecting it from air and microbial activity, dramatically improving the shelf life of fresh produce.

FE: Is it safe to eat? Does it have a flavor or smell?

Rogers: Yes, the materials that we use for our formulations are all found in huge quantities in the fruits and vegetables you eat every day. We simply repurpose agricultural byproducts, using the uneaten plant material to make our formulations, which we reapply onto the surfaces of fresh produce. In another sense, we are using food to preserve food. Our natural protective formulas are clear, odorless, tasteless, completely undetectable, and have been designated by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) to eat.

FE: Is it considered organic?

Rogers: Our natural formulas work with both organic and non-organic produce and allow organic growers to stay organic. We are currently applying for our USDA Organic Certification.

FE: Does the Edipeel formula for raspberries work for citrus or blueberries?

Rogers: There are specific formulations for specific crop types. A formulation needs to be tailored specifically to each type of produce. For example, if you were to apply our avocado formula to blueberries, you wouldn’t see the same benefit. Likewise, if you were to apply the blueberry formula to avocados, you’d ruin the avocados. We’re creating a modified atmosphere inside the produce itself, and different kinds of produce have different optimal internal atmospheres. The right gas exchange is critical, which is why we optimize our materials for use in specific types of produce—so we can keep the produce moist while at the same time permitting gas permeability.

FE: How does the use of Edipeel affect packaging requirements?

Rogers: Edipeel does not have any specific packaging requirements, but there are potential benefits to using a particular type of packaging.

Take clamshell packaging that berries are contained in, for example. Holes are made in clamshells to force air cooling to pull field heat off freshly picked fruit. However, the clamshells are designed for gas exchange into and out of the packaging. Therefore, the holes should be small enough to retain high humidity inside the package to prevent water loss in the fruit. Unfortunately, while this internal high-humidity environment inside the clamshell is great for slowing down water and weight loss, it also does a great job of creating a high-humidity environment that encourages mold growth.

What we’ve found with our customers’ use of Edipeel is that by increasing the number of holes in the packaging, you can improve the rate at which you’re able to achieve forced-air cooling and reduce the relative humidity inside the package, so you don’t encourage mold growth. Edipeel eliminates the need for a high-humidity environment in clamshell packaging because the protective solution maintains the fruit’s moisture and weight directly after harvest. You solve the water loss problem with Edipeel, and the mold issue is diminished because the fruit is stored at a lower humidity.

FE: While Edipeel can slow the growth of mold, can it slow the growth of bacteria?

Rogers: Yes, Edipeel has the ability to slow the growth of mold. The key to protection from fungal or bacterial infection is to boost the fruit’s ability to naturally defend itself against fungi and bacteria. Although we don’t develop any specific antibacterial products, Edipeel helps to improve produce’s resistance against bacterial activity by maintaining the natural health of fruits and vegetables.

FE: How is Edipeel applied in a harvest/industrial setting?

Rogers: Our natural protective formulas can be applied in a variety of ways, including widely used spray, dip and paint-on methods, which makes it easy to integrate Apeel products into established workflows. The application process is designed to fit within the customer’s current process. Our goal was to make the integration as seamless as possible for our customers.

FE: What produce are you specifically targeting now?

Rogers: Edipeel has been proven effective on over two dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables, including bananas, lemons, limes, mangos, blueberries, tomatoes, strawberries, avocados and green beans. Raspberries are a product we’re focused on now because they spoil very quickly. The challenge is in blending the applications into that process because those products are placed directly into clamshell packaging during harvest.

FE: What is its availability?

Rogers: Edipeel is currently available to select growers and producers. We’ve had success working with local organic farmers, like Good Land Organics, helping to get exotic fruits, like finger limes, to broader international markets. We have production coming online at the end of Q1 in large volumes and will start making product more widely available during the latter half of 2017.