Food Quality Reimagined
Using technology to fight food waste, three startup journeys to acquisition, tech optimism, AI safety, jobs, events, and more
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Food Quality Reimagined
About one-third of the world's food is thrown away. Today, we're going to learn why the food supply chain is broken and how we can fix it. I'm excited to chat with Michael Kasimatis, co-founder and COO of BlakBear, a team that brings together chemistry, electronics, and AI to accurately measure the quality of food, tell you in real-time if your food has gone bad, and help producers, supermarkets, and consumers reduce food waste. Founded by Imperial PhD scientists, BlakBear recently raised £2.3m in funding and works with some of Europe's top food producers and supermarkets.
Let’s get to it.
Michael, it's great to have you on Startup Pirate. It's interesting, it's 2023, and we still don't have a good way to accurately measure food quality in real-time. We use date-labelling on products, "Use by:", "Best by:", but these are based on assumptions, right?
MK: The current system of food labelling and determining quality is, as you mentioned, based largely on assumptions. It’s based on sampling a small percentage of food produced and drawing conclusions for the whole supply chain based on these tests. Producers conduct quality controls in a small sample of products and then wait for days to receive the lab analysis before the packages begin their journey to the consumer's plate. Assumptions on how the quality of that small sample will progress over time are then extrapolated to every package and, together with a variety of criteria and analytical techniques, help producers determine the printed “use by” dates.
So the current system works on educated guesses, but guesses nonetheless. They're based on averages of conditions, while in reality, these conditions can vary wildly in the journey from the producer to the consumer; think about general variability of cooling equipment, loading and unloading times, and of course, seasonality — random sun exposure. Consumers sometimes view expiration dates as indicators that say: "This is no longer edible." But, in reality, the dates are set by producers, who have no control or idea of what the consumer does with their food after they leave the store, which is when food spoils the most and faster than at any other point in the supply chain.
The inherent issue with this method is the potential for a lot of food waste and inefficiency. Many consumers throw away food once it's past the "use by" date, believing it to be unsafe or unpalatable when it could still be perfectly fine. It's crazy if you think that in the UK alone, three million tonnes of food, worth £2 billion, is wasted every year even though it could still be consumed. In Europe, this figure rises to 130 million tonnes. The economic and environmental impact of food waste is massive.
So far, the industry could only do so much with the available technology, as it's extremely hard to measure biology in real-time throughout the supply chain at scale. But now there are alternatives. A real-time freshness monitor can potentially revolutionise inventory management, reduce food waste, improve customer satisfaction, and ultimately contribute to sustainability. That’s why we’ve built BlakBear.
What's your pitch on BlakBear, and why is it something new and different?
MK: We are a team of physicists, biochemists, and engineers on a mission to make food efficient and bring a scientific, direct, and real-time approach to measuring food freshness — but also simple to use. Our patented sensor technology enables smart labels to go inside food packages, measure freshness, and predict expiration dates in real-time. We're not just relying on estimation or an indirect method of measuring freshness — this has been tried before and is ultimately ineffective.
What we do is we're actively and continuously monitoring the condition of the food inside the package. We are building smart labels with food-grade materials, designing them to measure a variety of foods in a wide range of conditions. It's a complete shift in the paradigm from preventative and assumptive labelling to real-time, data-driven insight into the freshness and quality of food. That's what makes BlakBear truly unique and revolutionary. Even though we are still early in our journey, we are trusted by leading European producers and supermarkets who have been piloting with us to measure food spoilage and fight food waste.
Please give us more colour on the underlying technology and perhaps the chemical processes that take place and help you detect food freshness.
MK: At the core of BlakBear's technology is the principle that when food spoils, it undergoes chemical changes that produce certain gases which can be detected. There are two types of food bacteria: Pathogens that can cause human disease and bacteria that cause food spoilage (deteriorate quality, taste, texture, smell, etc.). For now, BlakBear focuses on the latter since detecting and reporting deadly bacteria has all sorts of legislative hurdles we'd need to deal with as an early-stage startup. So, when meat, chicken, and fish spoil, certain microbes that grow on top of them break down their amino acids and release gases such as ammonia, other amines, and sulfur compounds as their colonies multiply.
You have probably smelled spoiled food yourself. Most of us can detect food spoilage by smelling the smell emitted as food decomposes. Still, by the time that happens, the food's already spoiled. BlakBear’s sensors are more sensitive (our company is named after the black bear because of the animal's keen sense of smell!); thereby, they can detect the onset of such chemical procedures when it's still in the package. We do this via paper electrochemical sensors that have the size of small stamps, so they can be safely placed on packages and measure how well electrical current flows through the paper. As the paper absorbs gases from inside a food package, the flow of current changes, signalling microbe growth.
Moreover, the chemical and electrical changes in the sensor are measured and transferred to the cloud via wireless communication (RFID). They are converted into freshness measurements using our AI model, which also predicts when the food will expire based on real-time information. And this information is then communicated wirelessly to the user. To make it as user-friendly as possible, we've developed an enterprise dashboard to monitor the quality of food produced and tracked throughout the supply chain. The beauty of this system is that it's highly scalable and can be integrated directly into the packaging material during the manufacturing process.
Our early prototype had sensors with batteries and used Bluetooth for connectivity, but we quickly realised this couldn't scale. Imagine receiving a food package at home with a noticeable sensor inside it!
Which parts of the food supply chain would benefit from accurate food quality data, and which are you addressing with BlakBear?
MK: BlakBear's technology has the potential to add immense value across the entire food supply chain, and we're working to implement it at several key stages.
Producers and manufacturers: This is where BlakBear's impact begins. By integrating our smart labels into their packaging process, producers can start monitoring the freshness of their products from the moment they're packaged. This information can also help them optimise their processes to ensure quality and reduce waste and cost by having real-time quality control.
Transportation and logistics: By having real-time data on food freshness, they can optimise their supply chain and have visibility at which points things are going wrong, something that does not currently exist.
Retailers: Retailers are one of our key focus areas. With our smart labels, they can maintain a real-time overview of their inventory's freshness, allowing them to manage it more effectively and reduce waste. It also provides an assurance of quality to their customers and significantly enhances their reputation.
Consumers: Consumers no longer have to rely on rough estimates or dubious “use by” labels. In fact, we are experimenting with a solution for consumers since a big part of food waste is caused at this end of the supply chain. Soon, consumers will be able to accurately measure the quality of perishable foods in their fridges, plan when they should consume them, and save money by not discarding safe-to-consume food. This can genuinely revolutionise human food habits. Think how Fitbit, Apple Watch, etc., changed the course of the fitness industry with quantification. We aim to do the same with food. In fact, we recently built an early product for a consumer trial with participants at home funded by WRAP, where the freshness sensor was incorporated into a food container and communicated with an app via Bluetooth. The device sent reminders and acted as a countdown clock while the food was still good to eat. It's about time to bring those cheap plastic containers into the future!
I remember BlakBear first started as a way to gather air pollution data with a sensor on the back of your phone, right? I'm curious to learn more about this pivot and how you shifted your focus to the food industry.
MK: Correct. We started experimenting in 2017 while all three co-founders (CEO Max Grell, CTO Giandrin Barandun, and myself) were pursuing our PhDs in Bioengineering at Imperial College London, building sensors to reveal new data and harnessing it with machine learning to solve critical problems. The first commercial application we explored was a paper sensor attached to the back of a smartphone collecting and measuring the components of air pollution. Since the beginning, we wanted to address a big, significant problem, and air pollution seemed a great fit.
However, soon after launching a prototype, we realised market adoption wasn't there. We always wanted to be a fast-moving startup failing fast and being agile in our decisions. If we saw more impact, better fit, and different areas for R&D focus, we were and still are ready to aim for that. By being open to change and always keeping an eye on potential applications of our technology, we could identify a new and, as it turned out, even more, impactful use case for our sensors. That’s how going through a market discovery process and trying to identify opportunities worth pursuing, multiple large food producers expressed interest in testing our technology.
Another key lesson has been that ideas are cheap, and execution is what matters. People will take their credit cards out only if you solve a problem for them. Therefore, a team in the early days should obsess about deeply understanding the customer's pain points and how the industry works. These should inform how you build products and how you position yourself within the industry. We looked deeply into the food waste crisis and the food industry, and we were able to develop a solution that directly addresses the core issues in that industry.
Pivoting is often necessary, but it's part of the journey to success.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Michael. It was great to talk to you!
MK: Thanks for having me, Alex.
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