A few weeks ago, Gimlet Media’s renowned podcast “The Pitch” — dubbed the best business podcast on startup life by Fortune — hosted its first-ever live show on the road on the Wharton School’s campus. Three Philadelphia startups led by young entrepreneurs pitched their businesses in front of two well-known venture capitalists, and audience members got to see what goes into VC funding. You can listen to the latest episode of “The Pitch” featuring the “Philadelphia Pitch-off” event here.
The winner of the Wharton “Pitch-off” was Strella Biotechnology, a startup founded by Katherine Sizov, a senior studying biology and engineering entrepreneurship at Penn. Strella biotech is tackling the problem of fruit spoilage (particularly apples) during storage, which is a big challenge for fruit packers. A typical packing facility contains hundreds of storage rooms, and inside each storage room are millions of apples. The packer doesn’t have any data about where his ripest produce is. Strella designs and produces biosensors that are installed in these storage rooms that monitor apples as they ripen. This is coupled with a user interface that allows the packer to always know where their under-ripe, maturing and ready produce is.
KWHS interviewer Emmie Stratakis recently sat down with Sizov to find out more about her business and her life as an entrepreneurial biologist.
An edited transcript appears below.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Hi, everyone. We’re back today with Katherine Sizov, who recently competed in the Wharton School among two other entrepreneurs on November 27th for a live episode of “The Pitch.” And her company, Strella Biotech, actually won. Congratulations on winning “The Pitch,” Katherine! How was that experience for you?
Katherine Sizov: Thank you so much. It was extremely exciting. I’ve never pitched in front of so many different people before. Typically when I pitch, it’s just a couple of judges and me in a room together, so that was extremely exciting. I’m also really grateful for the opportunity that it provided me, because now I’m in talks with some of the judges in regards to a future investment opportunity. And I also got a ton of exposure, because “The Pitch” is so well-known.
KWHS: Could you help us understand a little bit more about Strella Biotech and your business model?
Sizov: Sure. So, we work to optimize the food supply chain, via technology. More specifically, we make biosensing platforms that can predict the ripeness of fruits. And we use this to allow packers and distributors to know which fruit to send down the supply chain first.
So briefly, the way the technology works is, if you’ve ever put an unripe banana next to a ripe one, you’ve probably noticed that the unripe banana ripens a lot faster than if it was by itself. And that’s because fruits communicate with each other, and specifically, their ripeness, to other fruits, using this particular gas called ethylene. And so we measure this gas in our sensor. And we actually use the exact mechanism in fruits to sense this gas. And so as a result, what we’re doing is, we’re kind of hacking a fruit for our technology.
“An apple is typically stored for eight months to a year and a half before it ever hits the grocery store.” — Katherine Sizov
KWHS: That’s super-cool. How did you get inspired to get into the area of food waste? And why apples?
Sizov: Actually, I didn’t have much knowledge prior to starting this company, in terms of ag [agriculture]. I’ve always worked in biomedical labs. But in the summer, I read a paper about how 40% of all fresh produce is wasted before it’s consumed. And I thought, “That’s a ridiculous number,” and we can definitely work to optimize it. And so I decided, “Why not use my knowledge to develop a technology and solve that problem?”
And the reason that I chose apples is because everyone eats apples. It’s such a big market in the United States. And apples actually are stored for a really, really long time. So an apple is typically stored for eight months to a year and a half before it ever hits the grocery store. So, there’s obviously a lot of food waste that goes into storing a fruit for that long.
KWHS: Could you speak to the combination of bio and business? How did you choose to major in bio, and do engineering entrepreneurship as well? Was it challenging for you?
Sizov: I think those two are a great combination, because typically when you’re a biology major or a science major, you have two options. The first one is to go into the academic field, the academic realm, work at a university or a publicly funded lab. Or the alternative is to work in industry, developing drugs or pharmaceuticals for a really large company.
So as a result, I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to do either of those. So I’m going to start my own thing, and go from there. And definitely engineering entrepreneurship has really helped with that aspect.
KWHS: What would you like others, particularly students in high school, to know about this path?
Sizov: It’s a little scary, but you get total freedom. So if there’s something that you’re really passionate about, you can go out, do it yourself, and not necessarily follow anybody else’s rules.
KWHS: Katherine, what’s in the future for Strella Biotech?
Sizov: In the future, I hope to bring more exposure to the field of agriculture. I think it’s a huge field, and as the population grows, there’s a lot of issues that are popping up that need to be solved. And it’s something that people don’t typically think of, even though we eat food every day. I definitely want to continue working in this field and continue to develop new technologies and solutions for the future.
KWHS: Thank you so, so much, for joining us today.
Sizov: Thank you.
- K@W: The Full Story of the Philadelphia Pitch-off at Wharton
- The Pitch Podcast from Gimlet Media
- Strella Biotechnology
- More Awards for Strella
What problem is Strella Biotechnology addressing?
Using the Related Links, read more about The Pitch Philadelphia Pitch-off. Listen to the actual podcast. Which business would you choose, and why? Which business do you find most interesting? What did you learn about the venture capital process?
Why is the combination of studying both science and entrepreneurship unique? Why do these areas of interest fit well together? Using the Related KWHS Stories, read about another example of biotech innovation. How has that company progressed?
This is a very interesting idea to conserve fruits for a longer period of time. This concept can also lead to ending world hunger. As Katherine had said apples are kept in storage for a long period of time during that time period 40% of the all the apples have been wasted”. Katherine said that she will use biotech to reduce the wastage of the apples and in the future she will try to implement it on other fruits. I think it will be useful in the future.
After reading this article, I have realized that this idea is insightful and can provoke a range of good things over time such as conserving fruit for a longer period of time. This concept can also result in world hunger coming to an end which is very beneficial to society. Biotech will be used to reduce the wastage of apples and in the future, it will be implemented into other fruits.
In my opinion, Sizov’s idea is really good, useful, innovative, and help most of the agriculture companies and system. We can see that she combine biology and engineering knowledge into one, which can be something new. Sizov create a new technology where allows agriculture workers or packer to always know their fruits qualities. It is impossible for workers to check one by one every fruits from millions of fruits. But using this new technology, called Biotech, we can now easily know fruits where their under-ripe, maturing and ready produce is. Maybe most of us think that apples that are in the store, are apples that fresh picked from the trees, but guess what it turns out that apples are typically stored for eight months to a year and a half before it ever hits the grocery store. I will give one of my ideas after reading this article, which is maybe I will involve this technology to many branches, for example can be used to check the quality of farm products, aquatic products, like fishes, meats, and beefs. So instead of just helping the agriculture, we can also give benefits to farmers and fishermans too… Last of all, I hope Biotech can reach all over the world and many peoples can come up with new creative ideas to humans’ lifes.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, is the common proverb which I have heard since being in primary grades. But if we take this more literally, and think that really we eat apples nearly throughout the year. Have we thought from where do they come from? Now most common answer would be that they are freshly picked and sold, but as Sizov has researched it is stored for 8 months (appprox.), before reaching to consumer. Of course, when under storage, the each fruit showcases some unique ripening traits. So, to use biosensors to monitor fruits condition is a good idea, but is it really possible that each fruit is monitored closely (especially when 1000’s are stored together)? Similarly, when it is noticed by experts that this idea is already being developed in Germany and South Korea, so how can Sizov prove that her works better than those. And if proved, I would suggest her to quickly patent her intellectual property.
Also, Strella is currently focused on apple, but if we look at long-term perspective, can Sizov optimize it for different fruits too? If yes, then of course it would require intense research, which may turn out to be costly. In my opinion, Strella can hire some people with expertise in agriculture, who can act as Subject Matter Experts and advise her to invent further.
Furthermore, Strella only helps to ‘inform’ farmers and retailers, how to reorder the apple CA packing order, but it could be integrated with some other ideas. For instance, even though Strella reduces chance of over-ripening or fruit wastes, but still some waste happens. So, if in future it wants to imbibe Zero-waste policy, it could help growers by designing a interface where they can learn about composting. So, basically a addittional system could be connected so that the rotten and bad apples, which are totally unfit for consumption can be composted and can create manure for farmers. In fact this will greatly help farmers to move towards organic farming.
One more flaw in Strella’s technology is that it can’t diagnose if some disease is spreading amongst apple. So, basically it would be great if some sensors along with some fruit disease identification system is designed to diagnose the diseases in fruits. This can again be connected with interface which will display the location and tray number of apples, so that supervisor can directly reach their and can get rid of contaminated apples, and thus prevent it from spreading.
In short, there is lot of scope for improvement, and I believe in idea of Kaizen, which means ‘Continuous improvement’, so if Sizov also adopts it, it would lead her business to lean production and management.
Sizov’s idea of reducing apple waste is a really good thing for farmers so they don’t need to waste time finding the ripe, overripe, and underripe fruits. But the number of overripe apple is still not zero. So they should also do something with them and use them something related to agriculture like compost to help farmers even more. This ripe monitoring is also only limited to apple. It only makes sense to increase the range of fruits this technology should be used on. This technology only monitors the apple’s ripeness levels and does not check any other flaws of the apple. So they should find some sort of technology that will help this and reduce even more food waste as a result.
The reality is that here in 2022, the U.S. alone throws out about 40 million tons of food annually – what Recycle Track Systems (RTS) equates to over 650 apples being thrown out per person. Luckily, Sizov is having none of this apple waste, and Strella Biotech is an ingenious combination of biology and innovation.
By targeting the beginning of the problem – the ripeness of apples before they even hit shelves – Sizov allows packing facilities to send out more ripe fruits first, thus reducing how quickly the apples spoil when it gets to consumers. Considering food spoilage is a major contributor to food waste, and that commercial food waste makes 61% of all food waste, I’m amazed at how simple and effective Sizov’s innovation is. Not to mention, the device is only maybe twice as big as the apple itself!
But if it’s food waste you’re looking at, food spoilage specifically, ethylene gas sensors are not going to be enough. For one thing, ethylene isn’t the only factor concerning food spoilage. Things like temperature and exposure to oxygen also play their part in aging the fruit. In addition, RTS notes that over 80% of Americans throw away safe, consumable food due to confusion caused by the varying expiration labels/dates. It’s also common for people to overestimate how much food they end up eating.
I wonder if the tech used here could be expanded to other foods. While four years after the events of this article has shown Strella Biotech to be reaching out to other fruits, vegetables, such as onions, are also capable of releasing ethylene, and many more are shown to be highly absorbent of ethylene. The gas sensors could be expanded even further than its current targets. Furthermore, the sensors could be designed to track other major causes of food spoilage. For example, the sensors could alert owners if the container storing a certain product is out of an acceptable temperature/humidity.
There is also a possibility of sharing the sensors with the public and/or other stages in the food chain. In practice, it’s likely not economically realistic to produce all these sensors, nor would the public take to it. Perhaps these sensors could be public, a way for the ordinary people to see how ripe their food is for free – and they could be encouraged to donate their increasingly ripe food to food banks instead, rather than simply throwing it all out due to panic.
When all is said and done, I’m still a huge fan of Sizov’s innovation. A whole 4 years after the interview in this article, Strella Biotech now works with an astounding 72% of the U.S. supply of apples and pears, and it’s only expanding into even more types of produce. Sizov saw a problem that spoke to her and combined two seemingly opposing passions to forge her own path, shining the spotlight on an invention that is making its way through food waste. There are so many possibilities and opportunities to take with Sizov’s innovation, and that’s the beauty of it: big things start small, after all – I am waiting to see how the seed of Sizov’s invention continues to grow.