25%— The meaning behind this number sent shivers up my spine.
This is the percentage of food that goes to waste in the average household, meaning 1/4 of the food you bought today is headed straight for the trash. The costs of all the food thrown out can add up to 40,000 to 60,000 yen a year. Just in Japan this amounts up to 17.31 million tons of food waste, of which 3 to 4 million is actually still edible.
To put this number into perspective, 4 million tons of food is roughly equal to the total amount of worldwide food aid in 2011. This issue of food waste is one of global concern, not only limited to Japan, as it is on the agenda of major international organizations such as the G20 Summit.
Phresh Organics takes on the challenge to tackle this global issue by developing natural food preservatives using Israeli biotechnology and microelectronics. We sat down with its CEO Amit Gal-Or, who, as a student of NYU Shanghai contacted a biotechnology professor in Israel to start this China-based startup.
A hardware product with biotechnology at its core, Food Protectors are adorable food preservatives welcomed in any household. Simply by placing these kitchen superheroes next to fresh produce, the food will last up to three times its regular expectancy. We were able to talk to Amit about the development of the product, the interesting formation of the team, and about their enthusiasm for the eco-friendly lifestyle in the future that can be realized with Food Protectors.
Kitchen Superheroes Created by Specialists of Different Fields
—What’s the story behind the development of the Food Protectors and the Phresh team?
Amit Gal-Or (Amit):
It all goes back to our team member, Professor Arie Markus of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and his12 years of biotechnology research. The purpose of his research was to develop a powder through microencapsulation that reduces the number of the bacteria and fungi that cause food spoilage. He created a blend of essential oils extracted from cloves, spearmint, and thyme that work effectively in preserving food. By coating the oil with a micro-powder that can regulate and prevent it from evaporating, he created a completely harmless and all-organic preservative.
I was intrigued by this research and that was when I heard a rumor that Prof. Markus was presenting his research to a certain company. The more I thought about his research and its potential, the more certain I was of it becoming a world-changing product. I immediately contacted him and asked him to partner with me in using this technology to create a new product.
Our team is made up of members who have completely different backgrounds and skills. I am a student at NYU Shanghai, where I am majoring in biotechnology. Prof. Markus is a researcher in Israel who develops powders. Andy is an accountant who gives us guidance on business and communications practices in China. WK is involved with the development of the Food Protectors’ hardware, mainly the batteries. It was the four of us who founded Phresh Organic.
An Eco-Friendly Lifestyle that Begins with a Little Bit of Charm
—When I saw the Food Protectors on Kickstarter, my first thought was “How cute! I want one in my kitchen!” I think you could have sold just bags of the powder itself, so why did you go so far as to make it a hardware product, which requires extra manufacturing costs?
Amit: That’s exactly the kind of reaction we were aiming for. We made it a hardware product because we wanted to get people first hooked on the visual appeal, to see it as something cute, something stylish. Before we settled on this idea though, we did come up with various other ones like just selling bags of the powder, or mounting the powder in refrigerators. But we felt that none of these would suit the households, especially in a place like the kitchen where they would catch the eyes of housewives and children.
This is also something that sets Food Protectors apart. We wanted to eliminate all hassles for the user, like the task of having to read an instruction manual or worrying about toxicity.
Food Protectors are based on the concept of “high-quality furniture” because consumers want products that are cool, simple, and easy to use, like the iPhone. We always tried to imagine the user actually using the product while we were coming up with ideas, and we eventually concluded that a hardware product is the best option, even in spite of its high production costs.
The preservative powder is placed inside the case, and an LED light shows its level of effectiveness, which notifies the user when the powder needs to be replaced. When you open the case, the light turns on to remind the user that they are living a sustainable eco-friendly lifestyle.
—I imagine you went through a variety design ideas. Is there any reason why you decided on the robot and the apple?
Amit: Yes. Something I noticed when I came to Shanghai is that people have a surprising affection and fondness of robots. I think it’s prominent in Asia, like in Japan for example. Robots easily blend into daily life like Doraemon, Astro Boy, and Gundams. They are not human, but they are not animals either. As a symbol of something that possesses special powers, I think the robot is a perfect fit for the Food Protectors.
As for the apple, even in a wide range of color variations, is a familiar object. As a child, you see them everywhere, like in Disney movies and such.
Past Challenges and Future Prospects for the Miracle Powder
—The Food Protector was born from a fusion of biotechnology and hardware. What kind of challenges and difficulties did you have?
Amit: Our first challenge was settling on a factory in China. Especially since they come in contact with fresh produce, we spent months talking it over. The requirements for the Food Protectors were simple: the case, the LED light to indicate the expiration date, and the battery, but finding a factory that could match the quality we wanted. For the battery, we went with custom-made slim, eco-friendly printed batteries.
We are currently building prototypes at a university research lab in Israel, but we take it to heart that cooperation with the factory is indispensable for the mass production in July and shipping in August to go smoothly.
The Food Protectors are comprised of a combination of good ideas and designs, 12 years of research, and the desire to protect the environment. What the user will get is the final product made by the factory. In other words, we will not make any compromises during the mass production procedure.
—Can you tell me what’s in store for the Food Protectors’ future?
Amit: There are two things that we want to achieve through the Food Protectors. The first is to expand the use for the Food Protectors and start a revolution in the food industry. As of this moment, we have proven their overwhelming effectiveness for 15 types of produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and potatoes.
Each of the organic oils has a pinpoint effect against specific fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and depending on the blend, it can be applied to other foodstuffs, fresh flowers, and even cosmetics in the future. The powder blend truly is a food protector. It is not just for use in the home, it can also be put to use by food transportation companies, warehouses, and by farms as well. It has the potential to solve the fresh produce waste problems that have been troubling the entire food industry.
The second is a bigger challenge: solving environmental problems. Not only will the prevalence of Food Protectors benefit users by helping them reduce their household finances, but it will also involve our customers as active players in creating a world with less food loss. Our ultimate goal is to achieve an efficient eco-friendly lifestyle and to shape the way that people care for the environment.
In fact, we successfully reached our crowdfunding goal just 20 days after the campaign started! It means there is that many people who are concerned about the environment and want to give us their support. We hope the Food Protectors will offer a chance to expand this community.
—Thank you very much Amit. In closing, is there any advice you can give to fellow startup entrepreneurs?
Amit: Hardware startups especially will encounter problems that will far exceed anything you anticipate. This is undeniable. If you do not approach these problems individually, it can end up looking like there is a major problem with the project itself. In times like those, ignore what seems as the major problem and instead break it down into manageable pieces and approach each one carefully.
I always see during interviews how each entrepreneur uses their passion towards solving a social issue as the driving force of their startup. In Phresh Organics’ case, they were able to make their years of research, their ambition to create the best user experience, and their serious concern for the environment into the form of Food Protectors.
Some things spoil before we can eat them, while others are thrown away because we cannot finish eating them. There are a variety of causes for food waste but I now have a deeper understanding how serious this global problem is, and it was Phresh Organics and their Food Protectors that lead me to this realization. I hope these kitchen heroes will continue to influence people as they had with me in the future.
Shipping to Kickstarter backers is set for August. They have already received offers from three companies for distribution channels in Japan. That means you might just find a little robot protecting the food in your kitchen in the near future!