Bringing home a bad apple or two from the grocery store might not seem like a huge deal to the average consumer. But for producers and sellers of fresh fruits and vegetables, the staggering 40% of food that goes bad before it even reaches a store means mounds of wasted food and nearly $1 trillion in lost profits.
Now, thanks to a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) award, seniors Katherine Sizov of Alexandria, Virginia, and Malika Shukurova of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, plan to address the issue and optimize the produce supply chain. The prize will help them grow their novel biosensing technology startup company Strella Biotechnology.
Sizov, who is majoring in molecular biology, likes to ask everyone the same question when talking about Strella: “How old do you think an apple in a grocery store is?” As it turns out, an apple from a store may have been in storage anywhere from a couple months to up to more than a year. “That’s one fact that you don’t really consider when you go into a store because you’re so used to seeing fresh fruit,” she says.
The idea for Strella came to life when Sizov, who was previously doing undergraduate research on neurodegenerative disorders, found herself reading papers outside of her main area of study and chatting with Shukurova about what she learned about food waste. The two friends had met during freshmen year through the Penn Russian Club.
That 40% of all fresh produce going to waste is what motivated Sizov. “I thought it was the most ridiculous number in the world,” she says. “This clearly is a problem that could be solved, and, since [agriculture] is a bio space, I thought we could use the technical knowledge that we have to solve the problem.”
Shukurova, a bioengineering major, quickly became interested in seeking a solution with Sizov. “At that time I was becoming increasingly interested in the technical aspects [of the problem], and more focused toward building a solution by sensing,” she says. Their complementary areas of technical expertise, and two years of friendship, led to a collaboration.
They soon found a potential approach: Ripening fruits release ethylene gas, and the amount of the gas correlates with a fruit’s ripeness. The challenge, however, is that man-made compounds do not bind ethylene with much specificity, so it’s a difficult gas to measure.
Strella’s solution? “Hack the fruit,” says Sizov, explaining that fruits can already measure ethylene themselves. Placing a ripe banana next to an unripe banana, for example, causes the unripe fruit to ripen more quickly. “Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s use what a fruit uses to sense ethylene,” she says.
After Sizov “hacked” the fruit and had a potential biosensor in hand, Shukurova’s experience and technical knowledge in bioengineering gave her knowledge on both the electronic and biological aspects of the problem. Their patent-pending sensor is now a “leading ripeness indicator” that Strella can monitor on a constant basis.
But bringing their biosensor to market means overcoming technical and biological challenges, including biosensor stability and powering the electrical components that collect data. Sizov and Shukurova put together a team of people with complementary knowledge, including Zuyang Liu, an electrical engineering master’s student; Reggie Lamaute, an undergraduate studying chemistry and nanotechnology; and Jay Jordan, who has previous experience in sales and market development in agriculture.
Strella biotechnology came together thanks to a number of programs and resources at Penn, including the Wharton VIP-Xcelerate, the Wharton VIP Fellows program, Weiss Tech House, the Wharton Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Club, the Penn Engineering Miller Innovation Fellowship, and courses offered as part of the Engineering and Entrepreneurship Program. Sizov and Shukurova also say that Penn’s openness to innovation and the numerous resources for would-be entrepreneurs has expedited their success.
Mentorship was also crucial for the success of their startup, with both naming Sevile Mannickarottu and their PIP mentor, Jeffrey Babin, as instrumental resources. Babin, who first met Sizov when she took his engineering entrepreneurship lab and who later served as her Wharton accelerator program advisor, says that Sizov was able to take skills she gained in the classroom and directly apply them in business scenarios. “She’s fearless in terms of picking up the phone and talking to strangers, gauging the market place, and taking on the tough issues in starting a company,” he says.
One of the company’s early challenges was when they landed their first sale but were faced with a push-back on pricing. Babin provided guidance on how to negotiate through this tough situation, which resulted in closing the sale while not giving in to the pressure to reduce their price too much, a common occurrence for startups that Babin said Strella navigated well.
The team also learned the value of persistence and patience as they work to change the minds of hesitant clients while trying to navigate a landscape of generational businesses. By striking a balance between respecting the tradition and framework of the sector while supplementing their discussions with data, Strella has made strong headway into this $4 billion industry. “If you tell someone we can save you $187,000 per room, and you have 90 storage rooms in a typical operation, then that makes sense to everybody,” says Sizov.
Strella has continued its winning streak, with Sizov winning judges over during “The Pitch” podcast event at Penn and earning VentureWell E-Team Stage 1 and Stage 2 grants, and Strella taking home a $100,000 award in Arizona State University’’s Innovation Open competition. Now, thanks to PIP, Strella’s founders are looking toward the future as the company transitions from being a student-led startup to landing its first sale.
PIP will enable Strella to work toward the first sales cycle while continuing to do research to extend the company’s long-term impact on the entire supply chain. The students will also be able to take advantage of dedicated co-working space at the Pennovation Center, as well as continued mentorship from the Penn Center for Innovation. “If you are able to explore other markets and perform further research and still sell in your current market, it gives you so much freedom,” Shukurova says about the significance of the award.
This freedom will be crucial for making Sizov’s ambitious vision for the future of the company a reality. “We want to be on every single pallet in every major fresh produce retailer,” she says. “We want you to be able to walk into a store, and everything there is something that you can pick up and take home and say, ‘This was the best food I’ve ever had’.”
Sizov’s ambition is met with a solid understanding of what the company needs in order to achieve those goals; she’s already thinking about hiring sales, research and development, and eventually organizational staff in the long term. Babin says that this perspective is crucial to a successful startup and is something that makes Strella exceptional.
“What I really like about Strella, and how Malika and Katherine go about it, is that they have a very clear product offering and a very clear initial target, but what’s exceptional is that Katherine, even from the early stages, was thinking about where it could go. To think strategically while putting out fires on daily basis is something that sets them apart,” he says.
Sizov and Shukurova are both excited about the opportunity and are thankful for the support from Penn’s network of alumni, mentors, and colleagues.
Sizov also appreciates how PIP enables an alternative approach to innovation. “A lot of people go into consulting jobs because they say, ‘I need to have job stability first, then I can work on something that I’m truly passionate about.’ I think it’s really cool that Penn has this initiative that allows someone who has their idea and who has a technology to go out there and implement it.”
Babin is also excited to see how Strella’s future unfolds and how the PIP award will allow Sizov and Shukurova to take their company to the next level. “Both of them are really good at embracing unfamiliar environments and uncomfortable situations and coming out on top.”
The President’s Innovation Prize, founded by Penn President Amy Gutmann in 2016, encourages Penn students to design and undertake innovative, commercial ventures that make a positive difference in the world. Winners receive as much as $100,000 to further develop their innovation as well as a $50,000 living stipend each. The Prize is one of the signature initiatives of the Penn Compact 2020, of which Innovation is one of the three pillars.
Jeffrey Babin is a practice professor and associate director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.