The problem of food waste has attracted more attention in recent years, and for good reason.
By now, the rough statistics are quite familiar. Globally, approximately 30% of all food is lost or wasted. Meanwhile, in the US, it is estimated that up to 40% of all food produced is not consumed.
It is a hot environmental issue as well as a humanitarian one. The carbon footprint of all that wasted food is monumental. And, tragically, there are millions around the world who do not have enough food, despite the abundant global supply.
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Startup founders and investors have also been following the numbers. This has contributed to a large number of companies working on ways to reduce food waste.
It is a very funded group. A Crunchbase sample of companies with business models tied to reducing food waste shows $1.85 billion invested to date for those that raised in the last two years. We gather below a selection of 25 of the most interesting and highly capitalized:
Broadly speaking, we identify three main themes in investing in food waste. These include technologies to make fresh food last longer, better systems to redistribute surplus or suboptimal food, and processes to turn food waste into new products.
Eat old groceries
Let’s start with more durable products.
Among foodies and fans of healthy eating, fresh has long been the main mantra. It’s about the joy of peaches and strawberries fresh from the farm, a loaf of sourdough still warm from the oven, vegetables freshly picked from the summer garden…
If you’re hungry reading the above, then let me interject that this is not where startups focused on reducing food waste are taking us. Rather, the funded companies envision a world in which produce and other perishables can stay on shelves longer and still taste good.
Appel Sciences, the most funded company on our list, is a prime example. The Goleta, California-based company, which has raised $640 million to date, makes a plant-based coating that helps produce stay fresh longer.
An unwrapped English cucumber treated with apeel, for example, can stay crisp and wrinkle-free for nine days. A lime is still juicy and good. After one monthwhile an organic apple can stay crisp for a similar duration.
based in Chicago Hazel Technologies has raised $88 million for packs that can be tossed into a box of produce to extend shelf life. Ryp Laboratories, of Kirkland, Wash., meanwhile, markets a product called StixFresh that can be applied to fruit to slow over-ripening and spoilage. The company raised $7.3 million in recent funding, according to a July securities report. presentation.
Getting rejected food to those who want it
In addition to allowing food to last longer, startups are also working on ways to more efficiently transfer rejected items to businesses and consumers who might still be able to use them.
On a micro level, this approach reminds me of my best friend who hated tomatoes in high school. He would always take tomato slices from his sandwich and offer them to his tablemates, to no avail. In hindsight, it is clear that this was a well-intentioned but unsuccessful strategy to prevent food waste.
But what if, on a macro scale, there was a way to make this type of sharing work? What if one could take gently bruised fruit, old but not moldy baked goods, and other items rejected by distributors, stores, and restaurants, and bring them to people willing to put aside their flaws?
It turns out that a considerable number of financed companies are working on this general idea. The most prominent is market of misfits, a direct-to-consumer seller of surplus premium groceries and organic products that are too small, large, or oddly shaped for retailers. The Philadelphia-area startup has raised more than $525 million to date, including $225 million SoftBank Vision Fund-He came back a year ago.
In Europe, based in Stockholm matsmart has raised more than $140 million to scale its business selling discount groceries and other items that are surplus, poorly packaged, or just expired. Popular items this week included rye crackers, bulk spaghetti, and olive oil.
Another good-sized funder is based in the UK. too good to gowhich provides an app for restaurants and other food vendors to sell “Magic Bags” to consumers that contain food that is leftover or close to its expiration date.
Turn old or rejected foods into new products
Another logical use for surplus or stale food is to find some purpose for it other than to feed a human.
Industrial goods are one option. For that end, Triple W, an Israeli startup, produces what it describes as “high-value biomaterials” from food waste, including lactic acid that can be used to make bioplastics. Over seven years of operation, the company has raised more than $17 million in grant and venture funding.
Food for other creatures could also be made. That’s the idea behind the Bangalore-based company Wormwhich just raised $3.4 million in a seed round co-led by Omnivore Y water bridge companies. The company is looking to recycle food waste into high-protein animal feed through insect farming.
More complicated than just eating what’s on your plate
All of these high-tech approaches to reducing food waste are a far cry from the old-fashioned methods many of us grew up with. These included admonitions to eat all the broccoli, feelings of guilt for the hungry people in the world, and threats to withhold dessert.
Certainly these old standbys that are still in use today had some efficacy. But from a broader perspective, much of food waste occurs far from our plates, in distribution centers, supermarkets, restaurants, and elsewhere. To really make a dent in the problem, we will need innovators with truly scalable approaches.
It is encouraging to see that startups are on the case. This leaves the rest of us with more manageable ways to contribute, like finishing our broccoli.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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