Celebrity-backed Apeel Founder James Rogers developed a billion-dollar idea to combat food waste

Apeel Founder James Rogers is one of the few green techpreneurs to have successfully taken his garage-experiment to billion-dollar unicorn heights.

He pivoted from PhD student to founder after a podcast on global hunger sparked an obsession with understanding why people are going hungry in a food-abundant world; a whopping one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, while 700 million people go hungry every year.

His background in metallurgy, material science and solar paint became the critical link to his billion-dollar idea: an edible, see-through plant-based coating – like a second peel – that doubles the shelf life of fruit and vegetables by stopping water from going out and oxygen from going in.

James spent an entire year and a half digging deeper into research to explore his idea: “I was trying to rule out all the possibilities of why it wouldn’t work, but I realised the only way to know would be to try. It was almost three years before I had any proof the idea works – it was just a long period of believing.”

His period of believing paid off and with the help of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, he was ready to turn his fledgeling innovation into a marketable business solution.

But for Apeel to reach its full unicorn potential, he would need a healthy mix of business acumen, grit and largescale investors.

With Oprah Winfrey, Katy Perry, big-name investors and a billion-dollar valuation, you’ve been very successful in attracting investment. What was your approach to reaching investors?

It took a lot of bringing attention to what’s been an invisible problem. Now food waste has been reported to be a $2.6 trillion problem annually, but when we first started, those numbers weren’t there. We spoke to investors about their personal experience and asked them if they’ve ever thrown away food and what that felt like? What if you could have fruits and vegetables in your home that would last for weeks? What if you could have avocados that behaved like lemons in a bowl on your counter?

It was mostly about showing investors the scale of the food waste problem and what could be achieved. If we could solve this, it could be the foundation for a new food system.

What has been the biggest challenge in setting up Apeel?

My joke about starting a business is that you’ve got to like solving puzzles because your reward for solving one puzzle is that you get an even bigger and more complicated puzzle to solve.

You’re learning – you’re trying and failing and trying again. In retrospect, you learn how to do it faster had you taken a different route, but that’s just part of the process.

For us, the first puzzle was the science: ‘Does this pencil out? Could it work?’ The next puzzle was the invention – taking it from a piece of paper and making it manifest in real life. From there, we focused on the product, then the business model and went onto sales and understanding how to operationalise globally. Now, it’s about unlocking the fullness of the wrapped-up potential. We want to ensure everyone in the entire supply chain benefits from the value we’re creating so that it becomes the way we do business.

It’s a series of puzzles. They’re fun to work out but hard to solve.

What are your top tips for other entrepreneurs?

No one’s journey is the same, seek out both your unique and shared experiences – knowing these can serve you very well.

As soon as you can picture it, it’s time to do something about it

There’s something profound about our evolution where we can visualise things before they come into being. You can ask yourself if that picture is true, what do I need to do to make it real? From there, special things happen.

Find the things that are worth doing, and do them

That’s something I am always thinking about; what is truly worth doing?

For me, there are two ways to do something wrong: doing too much or too little of it. The art is finding the balance.

Where are your plans for scaling up?

Expanding with new partnerships

We’re in the largest grocery stores in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. We just added our first partnership in the Netherlands and Apeel is continuing to expand globally. We’ve been building a foundation to deliver Apeel produce to grocery stores around the world.

We’re speaking directly to consumers

With the launch of our Food Gone Good Campaign, we’re showing customers their impact; ‘by purchasing Apeel products, you’ve saved 14 litres of water, you’ve stopped six grams of carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere and ensured plastic doesn’t end up in landfill.’ We’re inviting shoppers to participate in creating a better planet. It doesn’t have to be hard or cost any more – it’s accomplished by the choices we make every day. 

What gets you excited about the future?

Hoping people do the right thing is a losing strategy, we have to align economic benefit with environmental benefit. If we can do that, then we can let capitalism work for us on behalf of the planet. I’m a material scientist by training, so I’m biased, but I love this idea that in retrospect we have defined the age of human development according to the materials to which we’ve had access.

There was the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steel age and the Silicon age and I would argue that right now we’re in the Plastic Age. If we were going to nudge out the plastic age and get into another age, it would have to be defined by a set of materials that have an advantage relative to the set of materials before it. My argument is that those materials would need to be intrinsically recyclable. They would need to be the materials of nature.

We need to get off this track of having to build recycling facilities or making sure we’re capturing everything for recycling because nature already has the perfect recycling system set up and ready to go; 3.8 billion years of work. Let’s hijack the materials that nature has been using and reusing for billions of years, use them to build stuff, and then when they go back out into nature, nature will recycle those things. That’s how we align economic benefit and environmental benefit just by advancing the age of materials.

A networking event you should go to:

The Atlantic Bridge Event on April 19th and 21st

If you need some ideas or connections to boost your business expansion, this event is focused around how to internationalise cleantech innovation.

Eco-living hacks I’m loving:

I brighten my bathroom with Whogivesacrap – toilet paper that’s good for the planet. It’s made from 100% recycled paper and bamboo and 50% of profits are donated to build toilets for people who don’t have any. From their colourful humour to their plastic free packaging and carbon neutral shipping – I love everything about this brand. Check them out with my affiliate link.

…………keep your eyes peeled for the next edition of the Green Techpreneur to find out how James took his edible plant-coating preservative solution from idea to billion-dollar unicorn.

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