SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — James Rogers was driving through the iconic Salinas Valley and listening to a lecture on world hunger when he got an idea.
He was working on his doctorate in material sciences at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and his research involved preserving such materials as steel. His studies led to frequent trips up the coast to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“I was cruising up (Highway) 101 ... and listening to an article on world hunger,” Rogers said. “I just happened to be driving through the Salinas Valley at the time and I saw these lush, green fields.
“The question was on my mind, ‘If we’ve got these magical seeds that we can grow in the ground ... how is it still possible that people are going hungry?’” he said. “It seems in theory that we should be able to feed more people.”
That thought led Rogers, 32, and several of his fellow doctoral students to start a company called Apeel Sciences and invent a product called Edipeel, a natural preservative made from food compounds that shippers or retailers can spray on produce to increase its shelf life.
Edipeel is a powdered mixture of different food molecules from unused or discarded plant materials, such as grape pressings from making wine, that are dissolved in water and sprayed on produce.
When it dries, the resulting thin barrier — which is edible and tasteless — slows the rate at which water can get out and oxygen can get in, which keeps the produce fresh, Rogers explained.
The product is designated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as generally safe to eat, and the Organic Materials Review Institute has approved it for use on organic fruits and vegetables.
Apeel says the spray can effectively double the shelf life of produce and reduce the need for refrigeration.
Rogers worked on Edipeel with Jay Ruskey, an organic grower of caviar limes — a rare citrus fruit that only lasts about a week after picking.
“He was a local guy who had a unique challenge related to perishability on his crop,” Rogers said. “We were able to develop a product for him that he now uses commercially.”
A native of Michigan, Rogers spent his early childhood in a suburb of Detroit, where his father was an engineer for a company that made brakes for large trucks and his mother was a substitute teacher. The family later lived near Vancouver, Wash., where Rogers finished high school.
“I was the kid who always wanted to know what everything was made out of and how it worked,” Rogers said.
Rogers earned dual undergraduate degrees in material science and engineering and biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before advancing to UC-Santa Barbara, where he earned his master’s degree in economics and his doctorate in materials.
Since Apeel was founded in 2012, the company has received $40 million in funding for developing its products, including grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Powerplant Ventures and other philanthropic and private investors.
The company’s stated mission is to end food waste and help growers reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, refrigeration and other techniques used for food preservation in favor of more natural solutions.
For Rogers, the effort required what he described as a “crash course” in agriculture.
“I was never directly on the farm,” Rogers said. “In fact, when I called my mom and told her about my idea to help reduce perishability on the planet, she said, ‘Sweetie, that’s really nice, but you don’t know anything about fruit.’
“We don’t make the fruit any better, we just slow it down from getting worse,” he said.
One of the first things he learned is Americans throw away one-third to half of what is grown, and the developing world discards as much as two-thirds of what is grown, he said.
“I thought, Gee, it doesn’t sound like the problem is on the production side. It sounds like the problem is with the storage ... after it’s harvested,” he said.
Rogers discovered that the leading causes of perishability in fruits and vegetables is water loss and oxidation, he said.
“This started to ring a bell from my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon when I studied steel,” he said. In refining metals, a micro-thin oxide or nitride layer acts as a shield against deeper corrosion....
“If people are going hungry not because of lack of production but because of perishability of fresh produce, what’s causing the produce to perish is water loss and oxidation,” Rogers said. “It’s a similar problem that steel had that was solved by a thin barrier around the outside.
“We thought, What if we could take food, find materials we need to create a barrier in food and then reapply it to food?” he said. “How could you argue with that philosophically?”
Rogers believes Edipeel could be particularly useful in some developing nations where access to refrigeration is limited. The company is now researching use of the spray before harvest as an alternative to chemical fungicides and pesticides.
Since fungi and insects use molecular recognition on the surface of the fruit, Rogers and his colleagues are testing whether they can “camouflage” the fruit to avert attack by pests.
Rogers said he doesn’t plan to sell his invention to a major company and do something else.
“There’s no get-rich-quick scheme on our part,” he said. “We’re really committed to sticking around and making this thing happen.”
Residence: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Occupation: Apeel Sciences owner and chief executive officer
Honor: Received the 2012 Frank J. Padden Jr. Award for polymer physics, the premier polymer physics prize in the U.S.