Emily Darchuck, founder and CEO of Wheyward Spirit

Emily Darchuck, founder and CEO of Wheyward Spirit.

The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded more than $1.1 million in grants for 11 small businesses that address food safety, processing, and nutrition issues. Four are on the West Coast.

The Small Business Innovation Research program gives grants to support research related to significant scientific problems and fund opportunities to build a more robust economy, said Kelly McDonald, program specialist for NIFA.

"The program supports innovative and disruptive technologies and enables the research to advance from conception into market," she said.

SBIR encourages women-owned companies and small businesses owned by people who are socially or economically disadvantaged. The program has 10 topic areas that offer grants for research.

"The topic areas are kept fairly broad, really to encompass all the opportunities in agriculture and not eliminate potential innovations in research that could fall under the preview of USDA," she said. "To solicit applications for broad topics that are consistent with USDA vision of really creating a healthy and productive nation."

Here are the West Coast recipients:

Carrisan Technologies, Inc., Davis, Calif. Award total: $99,927.

Carrisan Technologies aims to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses and food loss due to contamination.

A small amount of produce contaminated with a pathogen — an organism that can produce disease — can lead to a huge problem, said co-founder and CEO Jeff Leshuk.

The company is in the early stages of creating a surface coating that will make food contact surfaces on the equipment and tools self-sanitizing.

"A head of lettuce or a piece of fruit that comes along and contaminates that surface treated with our coating — the coating will kill any pathogens that are there before you pass over another 1,000 pounds of products," said Leshuk. "It basically kills the pathogens before they can be transferred on to the product that passes over those surfaces subsequently."

The company is still in the early stages of research — its laboratory is being set up currently.

Ryp Labs Inc. — Seattle. Award Total: $97,697

Global food loss reaches a year $2.6 trillion worth of loss. But a solution could cost less than 40 cents to manufacture.

About 931 million tons of food go to waste each year, and the U.S ranks third in food waste with an average of 30% to 40% of all food ending up in the trash — fruits and vegetables making up a large percentage of the waste, according to the FDA.

Ryp Labs Inc. aims to keep fruit fresh up to 14 days longer.

Ryp Labs Inc., formerly known as Stixfresh USA, plans to prevent the spoilage of fresh fruit with their essential oil-based formulas. The product is a sticker that holds a compound that slowly creates a protective layer around produce, protecting it from fungal infections and extending the shelf life up to two weeks.

The product works on mangos, avocados, dragonfruit, papayas, apples, and oranges, Zhafri Zainudin, CEO, co-founder, and inventor of Stixfresh, said on the "Open For Business" podcast in 2020.

Berkeley Fermentation Science Inc. — Oakland, Calif. Award Total: $100,000

As tropical fruit flavors become more mainstream in the fermented beverage industry and extreme drought conditions punish the West and in turn, the hop agriculture industry, a solution for both is needed.

Berkeley Fermentation Science Inc. was founded by scientists — all working to make hops more sustainable without altering the flavor.

About 50 pints of water are needed to grow the hops required for 1 pint of beer.

The company is making beer without hops. In their proposal, they plan to "develop genetically engineered strains of brewers yeast that will produce strong, tropical fruit flavors during beer fermentation, using non-aromatic precursor molecules already existing in drought-tolerant hops as substrates."

Wheyward Spirit — Portland. Award total: $106,490

The Portland company is the brainchild of Emily Darchuk and aims to reduce food waste by taking whey, a byproduct of cheese production, and turning it into an alcoholic, distilled spirit.

Before Wheyward Spirits, Darchuk worked as a food scientist in the dairy and natural food sector. While working in the dairy industry, Darchuk noticed the amount of whey going to waste within the farming process.

"I saw a big gap ... from the production of cheese. For every one pound of cheese made, there's nine pounds of whey remaining," she said, "and it's such a burden."

In addition to operational costs, whey can create high biochemical oxygen demand as it is typically poured down the drain.

Wheyward Spirit "upcycles" locally sourced whey into a distilled spirit. The company sources the cheese byproduct from local dairies along the coast and uses yeast to eat the residual nutrients found in whey. During the fermentation process, the yeast converts sugars into ethanol — which creates the spirits oaky flavor with hints of vanilla and spice.

The spirits have been on the market since 2020, and the ultimate goal is to create value all around.

"We can do that by making a great product, having a great supply chain — doing that efficiently. To be able to scale that, we're able to compete with the status quo," she said.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

Recommended for you