Workers at all stages of the food supply chain may soon be able to better assess ripeness in fruit by ‘listening’ to produce.
Strella Biotechnology, an agtech start-up based in Seattle, is utilising proprietary monitoring technology which detects ethylene – a chemical released by fruit as it ripens.
The technology, which can be deployed in warehouses, shipping containers, lorries and retail sites, has caught the eye of investors.
Strella has announced $8 million in new funding, with backers including Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of the search engine’s parent company Alphabet, and billionaire Mark Cuban.
According to the start-up, ethylene is a form of communication among fruit – when one begins releasing the chemical, its presence encourages other fruits to do so too, thereby inducing large groups of nearby fruit to ripen at the same time.
“The food supply chain doesn’t treat food like a living organism,” Co-founder and CEO Katherine Sizov told GeekWire. Fruit communicates with other fruit through the language of ethylene, she explained. “Why don’t we listen to what these organisms are saying to us?”
As well as monitoring ethylene, the technology also observes temperature and humidity levels. Using algorithms, Strella makes sense of the data and notifies businesses when produce needs to be moved and sold, and when it is close to being overripe or rotting.
This is especially helpful for certain fruits like apples – which are usually picked in the autumn and stored long-term in controlled atmosphere rooms to ensure year-round access for consumers.
The Strella device is able to assess which fruit must be sold when, to avoid it going bad before being sold – and, to stop it affecting the quality of other fruit being stored in the same space.
Launched in 2017, Strella’s mission is to tackle what Sizov considers to be the “ridiculous” amount of food waste generated worldwide.
According to the UN, more than 30% of all food is wasted either between harvest and soil, in the service industry and retail, or by individual households.
“I thought that level of food waste was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard,” Sizov told IBM in an interview. “The food supply chain operates the same way the paper towel supply chain works, meaning a perishable product is handled the same way as a static commodity.
“It seemed to make sense that maybe if we treated produce like the biological organisms they are, we could be smarter about what we do with them.”
Currently, Strella works with apples and pears – with its customer base accounting for more than 70% of the US apple and pear market.
Moving forward, Sizov said there is scope to expand the monitoring system to other fruits including kiwis, avocados, bananas, tomatoes and mangoes.