Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder…
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When we think about food waste, we often think about how wasteful we are at the end of the supply chain. But the problem is actually much deeper. And putting any real dent in it is going to take considerations starting at the farm level, then distribution, and finally to consumers. That’s the philosophy that drives Aidan Mouat’s work at Hazel Technologies, a crop protection company that develops biochemical solutions to extend produce shelf life.
Mouat co-founded Hazel Technologies in 2015 while a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. Fast forward five years and Hazel Technologies has raised over $17 million from investors, including the founder of OpenTable, and is on track to save 270 million pounds of food waste this year.
To learn more about the Hazel Technologies story, we sat down with Mouat to discuss what inspired him to start the company, its technical challenges, impacts, and more.
The Hazel Technologies origin story
The early days of Hazel Technologies are in a lot of ways similar to other successful dorm room startups. Mouat already had a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Chemistry from Emory University. And in 2015, when he co-founded Hazel Technologies, Mouat was wrapping up his penultimate year as a Chemistry Ph.D. student.
While his Chemistry background proved to come in handy, what really sparked his interest in the food waste reduction space was NUVention, an accelerator for graduate students at Northwestern to start sustainability businesses.
“In those early days I was starting to connect my own personal background and training in chemistry and the technical needs of sustainability chemistry,” Mouat tells us. “During this time I also started to learn about how incredibly large of a problem food waste was and still is, and how food waste contributes to other sustainability topics such as energy waste, water waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.” Not to mention, he also met his co-founders Adam Preslar, Amy Garber, and Pat Flynn through NUVention.
While Hazel Technologies found a team and support from Northwestern’s accelerator, the company still had a lot to figure out. The food waste reduction challenge is huge: 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Not to mention, the team needed money for research and development, as well as to ship the physical ‘packaging insert’ it envisioned as a solution.
In the beginning, funding didn’t come easy. “We spent a significant amount of time pitching at University-sponsored competitions, where prize money is often awarded,” Mouat tells us. And in 2015 and 2016 these efforts paid off when Hazel Technologies began to win several of these competitions.
That initial capital allowed the Hazel Technologies team to avoid dilution and gave the team just enough runway to invest in “engineering and work on the early technology fundamentals,” Mouat explains.
Come late 2016, Hazel had secured its first paying commercial customers, according to Mouat, and demand for Hazel’s packaging insert began to pick up. But “increasing production by 10x does not just mean having 10x more inputs with a similar process; rather, the process of scaling needs to be refined each time,” Mouat tells us.
As Hazel Technologies kept growing, it became imperative to identify inefficiencies in its process. They needed to change if the company wanted to serve customers at scale.
Creating a robust business model and working backward to tackle food waste
The idea of scale is important for every business but it’s especially important for businesses tackling food waste. The issue is larger than any one organization—or ten organizations for that matter.
And while a lot of food waste prevention initiatives have good intentions, they have limited impact, often because “they have weak business models,” Mouat says. “Without a return on investment, you can’t create a social impact,” he argues.
It’s with that ethos that Hazel has been able to work with over 150 customers in 12 different countries. For example, in 2019, Hazel partnered with Mission Produce, the largest avocado distributor in the world. In terms of return on investment, Mission Produce saw multiple extra days of shelf-life after using a Hazel Technologies product.
Since then, Mission Produce has become a “vocal partner with Hazel Tech in the fight against food waste,” Mouat says. And Hazel Technologies wants to take its impact to the next level as it closes in on saving 270 million tons of food waste in 2020.
The future Hazel Technologies wants to build and tackling other forms of food waste
While improving produce shelf life by a multiple would already be significantly impactful in reducing food waste, Hazel Technologies doesn’t want to stop there. Eventually, the company wants to expand to all levels of the produce supply chain.
But at the same time, Hazel Technologies is “developing multiple technologies for use with fresh meat and other grocery categories where food waste manifests globally,” Mouat tells us. The meat category could be an interesting next step, as 52.6 million tons of meat go to waste each year, according to the United Nations.
As Hazel Technologies keeps thinking about categories where food waste can be reduced, it hopes to forge more partnerships with distributors and other stakeholders in the supply chain.
Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.