Last month, Ryp Labs, a Seattle-based climate-tech startup announced a $8.1 million Series A funding round led by King Philanthropies with participation from Good Investors, BCP Ventures, Argosy Foundation, Ocean Born Foundation, and others. The startup’s flagship product is a food label sticker, StixFresh, which extends the life of produce so that when you buy a pack of strawberries from the grocery store, it doesn’t begin molding in your fridge the next day.
Global food waste is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis – so large that if food waste were a country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint, sandwiched just after the United States and China.
On top of combatting food waste and the emissions that come with it, Ryp Labs also strengthens economic outcomes for farmers and food distributors. With a recently closed deal with one of the world’s largest food retailers, Ryp Labs is using the funding to continue R&D efforts and gear up for its commercial launch, with a grand ambition at the top of its grocery list: putting an end to food waste.
To hear more about Ryp, its stickers, and its mission we caught up with its CEO and co-founder, Moody Soliman.
What is your background?
Originally from Egypt, Soliman studied engineering at the University of Minnesota. “I started my career in medical devices, spent about 10 years doing everything from manufacturing, to product development, to operational excellence, program management… And really got a sense of appreciation for working on technologies that can impact people's lives in a positive way,” he told FootPrint Coalition.
“In 2013, my dad was visiting from Egypt, and he had this excruciating pain in his left foot. We took him to the emergency room and it turns out, he had to have an emergency surgery to get a clot removed, and they used a medical device from the company that I worked at.” This reaffirmed his love for doing things that had a positive impact on lives.
Later, he got his MBA and joined a biotech startup in drug discovery, another impact-driven field, with Steve Hulteng, his Ryp cofounder. Together, they excelled at taking technologies from concept to product development to commercialization. “We just fell in love with that world and building something from the ground up,” Soliman said.
Fast-forward to 2017, Soliman’s brother met, Zhafri Zainudin, a young inventor, at a conference in Dubai who created a sticker that could extend the shelf-life of mangoes. “He was looking for someone to help him bring this technology to market,” Soliman said. “Given my and Steven’s background, we started digging into the problem and quite quickly realized that food waste is just an enormous problem.”
“A medical device, as important as it is, you know, addresses one in 10,000 or one in 100,000 cases. Waste is something that regardless of your social or economic background, or where you are in the world… everyone experiences food waste. And then it's not just an economic problem. It's a social environmental problem as well, because every minute, we're wasting enough food to feed over 1 million people.”
How did this inspire Ryp Labs?
“We were just floored by the magnitude of the problem,” Soliman said referring to himself and his business partner Hulteng. “[We were] also very inspired by the potential solution because when you look at food waste, it's something that's experienced all across the supply chain: farm all the way down to the consumer. In some regions, the waste is high as 60%, especially in developing regions. So if we're going to have a meaningful impact, we had to come up with a solution that was very easy to use, can be applied anywhere along the supply chain, and is scalable, so the largest distributors in the world can use it down to the smallest smallholder farmer.”
“That's what we ended up doing with Ryp Labs: we took this proof of concept and developed a formulation that can be applied to almost any surface. It's a plant-based formulation. It's 100% safe, so you can actually eat the stickers,” he said adding that while he doesn’t recommend snacking on the stickers, they are in fact edible and recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On top of this, they can be applied directly to the fruit or even the package, like a clamshell of strawberries.
How do the stickers work? What is the chemistry behind it?
“It releases those natural-based compounds and slows down the premature aging process,” Soliman said, showing the video below of two mangoes side-by-side, one with the StixFresh and one without. By day 4, the mango without the sticker begins to rot, while the treated mango is more resistant, buying you some extra time to enjoy it.
“Here’s how it works,” Soliman said getting into the specifics of the tech. “In layman's terms, plants have been producing these natural volatile compounds for millions of years to protect themselves.” He gave the example of a lavender plant. Walking by you can smell it, even though it may be several feet away.
“You're smelling what is known as a secondary metabolite, a volatile compound that the plant is releasing that has many attributes,” he said. “But one very important one is to protect itself because the plant is rooted to the ground. So if anything attacks the plant, it can't run away, so it releases these volatile compounds to protect itself. What we do at Ryp Labs is particularly unique because we can identify the specific compounds within the secondary metabolites.”
With tens of thousands of specific compounds out there, Ryp’s microbiologist and plant physiologist can identify which ones are most effective against certain postharvest diseases.
“Then our material scientists and chemical engineers will develop what we call matrices to encapsulate or trap these volatile compounds and extend release their release rate over time,” Soliman said, “This then gives us a formula that we can apply to the surface of the sticker, or we can put it in a sachet that you could drop in a box.” This concentration is increased for a sticker that’s inside of a container of strawberries, for example, versus directly on the fruit.
“Essentially what we've done is we’ve biomimicked how plants have been able to protect themselves for millions of years to now extend the shelf life of fresh produce,” he said summing it all up.
Are you distributing to grocery stores or directly to consumers?
“When we started our pilot studies we started working with a focus on distributors and retailers primarily, and right off the bat, we started working with some of the largest household names in the industry,” Soliman said referencing food retailers in the world from across Europe to South America. One of the most exciting results Ryp received was from a retailer Costa Rica, where the stickers “added two days to the shelf life of their strawberries, doubled their grapes, added 20 days to their citrus fruit, and had some quite positive results on papayas and mangoes as well,” Soliman said, “It's quite significant by retail standards.”
After a big brand purchase at the end of last summer, the startup is transitioning from pilots to commercialization. In addition to adding shelf life, the grocery store also sent treated strawberries home with customers to continue tracking them. The results reaffirmed what Ryp predicted: that the strawberries lasted longer, even at home, increasing customer satisfaction.
While the sticker would still work if a customer bought a mango from the store and applied the sticker at home, however, it’s not ideal. Nevertheless, the startup is working on optimizing the formula, because losses are experienced all across the supply chain, from farmer to distributor to customer.
“So, this is definitely something that we want to eventually have the consumer be able to purchase, “ he said.
What has the reception from investors been like?
In comparison with all of the other technologies Soliman has pitched, this one has the advantage of resonating with people, he says. “Everybody's thrown away food. Everybody's had strawberries in their fridge, and that has gone bad too quickly. I've never pitched this to someone who didn't say: Oh, man, I wish I could have these stickers at home.”
“But what really makes us excited is when we find investors that are truly impact-driven and truly impact-minded,” he said. One of the things that made King Philanthropies, which invested in the startup, excited about the technology was its scalability, in addition to as Soliman put it, “the fact that it can indeed be scaled in developing countries."
"There are a lot of very cool technologies on the market today that tackle this problem from different angles and different modes of action,” he said later referencing Ryp’s competitors, like AgroFresh which suppresses the ripening process, and Apeel, which indirectly suppresses the process with a coating that inhibits respiration and transpiration. But what separates Ryp is its scalability, both through its method and simplicity.
Not only is it not a ripening inhibitor, allowing it to be used on produce like strawberries that don’t ripen, but it can be used by anyone anywhere, from the big retailers in Costa Rica to the 160-farmer-strong co-op Ryp is currently working with in Belgium, to the small-scale farmer in Nigeria.
Speaking of access for farmers in developing countries, what’s the game plan as you tackle that side of the market?
“It's to scale and bring down the price point, so that it's affordable and accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, not only to reduce wastage, but also to open up new markets for them,” Soliman explained.
“You look at a lot of these developing countries, and they can only sell their fruits locally, within a very small radius. By offering extended shelf life in an affordable and scalable way, we can now open up new markets for them. You're not only allowing them to win by reducing their wastage and bringing more money into their household, but you're also allowing them now to sell it to further markets and perhaps even communities that did not have access to that fresh food previously.”
“It's ambitious,” he noted, “but it's definitely what gets the whole team here quite excited about what we're doing.”
What’s next for Ryp Labs after this round?
“We've learned, sometimes that hard way, that as a startup, if you try to do everything, you'll end up doing nothing,” Soliman said.
Right now, they’re focused and disciplined on targeting high-value produce with short shelf life like strawberries. “But the beauty of this technology is it can and will be applied to all different food groups, given its mode of action. So once we start to expand within the fresh fruits and fresh vegetables segment, we can eventually even venture out into fish, seafood, meat, dairy, grains, and other food types.” He also added that they’re currently looking at cacao beans from West Africa and doing studies on fresh-cut flowers such as roses from Kenya, which get exported to Europe and result in high wastage rates.
In addition to the waste, with over 90% of Kenya’s flowers headed north, the industry is economically profitable, but not so great for its environment due to the water use from the drought-stricken, Lake Naivasha, and fertilizer and pesticide use that comes with flower cultivation. This chemical use increases with disease. And “you'd be surprised, it's sometimes the same diseases that affect strawberries are affecting roses,” Soliman said.
It’s important to note that the sticker is not a silver bullet for every type of waste. The basic science of each application is the same, but Ryp makes tweaks depending on the target. To develop formulations for the broadest applications possible, of the 19 fruits they’re working on today, they have three formulas. “So it's quite exciting to look at all the different avenues where this technology can be applied,” he said.
Finally, what gets you up in the morning and keeps you motivated to do this type of work in the face of the climate crisis?
“[It’s] the potential impact that we can make,” Soliman answered. “I have three kids 10, 8, and about to be 6, and it's really something to see how excited they get about what their dad does and what we're working on. Don't get me wrong, we're in Seattle, we're in the land of Amazon, Microsoft, and other software companies doing pretty cool stuff, but that sense of appreciation you get from working on a technology that can truly impact people's lives in a positive way… you can't beat that."
"When you get to build it from the ground up and be surrounded by like-minded people, whether it's the team, the investors, or even sometimes our suppliers and our partners, it's quite special.”