Part 1: How to find and grow a billion-dollar idea

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

What started as James Rogers’ garage experiment to develop a plant-based preservative for produce quickly grew into a billion-dollar unicorn backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, big-name investors, and celebrities, Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry. Heralding the end of plastic-wrapped groceries, Apeel’s market entry has been fast and furious - Apeel-coated produce can be found in the biggest supermarkets across the U.S. and Europe. It promises an ingenious, natural solution to the single-use plastic crisis and food waste.

Apeel says its product is the only commercially available solution that’s both plant-derived and has a true shelf-life extension - preserving fruit and vegetables as it goes from supplier to consumer. Rogers’ brainchild has earned him a rank in Fortune’s 40 under 40, and a place in the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers. Apeel also made Time magazine’s list of 50 Genius Companies.

But before Rogers entered the limelight as an extraordinary innovator and entrepreneur, he spent six and a half years as a PhD student at Santa Barbara University, experimenting with paint that could create solar energy. His big pivot into food came from an obsession with a problem we all know exists, but never stop to think deeply about; ‘why are people going hungry?’

This is how James Rogers found, developed, and grew his billion-dollar idea

As a student in Santa Barbara, James Rogers made solar paint which he took to a lab in California, about five-hours away: “I’d get the night shift, so I’d drive up to do the experiments and gather the data.”

On one of these drives, he was listening to a podcast on global hunger: “It might have just washed right over, but as I gazed at the lush, green farmland, all I could think was: don’t we have these magical seeds that we put in the ground and they absorb water and sunlight, produce food and self-propagate? It’s the closest thing I know to magic.

“That stuck with me. It was the first domino that flipped.”

Ask big picture questions about the existing problem

It was puzzling how more than enough food is produced but there was still this issue of people going without. Obviously, it wasn't a production problem.

I got curious and went down this rabbit-hole. Eventually, I came across a paper that said all produce is seasonal, as well as perishable, and that clicked. I realised you’re either in a surplus, or you don’t have anything. It’s the intermittency of production that is the problem. 

Narrow the problem down to its basics and investigate ‘unsolvable’ parts

We solved the problem through trade because we invented this thing called money which was a non-perishable store of value. When you had surplus in season, you would take that and convert it through trade into a non-perishable store of value (money), so when you're out of season you can convert it back. But that only works if you can get what you're growing to someone before it goes bad.

That seems to be a critical link - the fact that food went bad and limited people from following the strategy.

Investigate how other industries have solved similar problems

Metallurgy is a scientific discipline focused on metal. I had studied this during my undergrad. I remembered metallurgists created this clever technique to incorporate certain atoms inside of template steel, like chromium, for example. It would react with oxygen and form this little barrier around the outside impeding more oxygen from getting in. That was the innovation of stainless steel. From then, all the pieces connected.

People were going hungry because they didn’t have the ability to trade, and they didn’t have the ability because their food went bad. This happened because water goes in and oxygen goes out. If we could we put a little barrier around the food, the problem would be solved.

I told my friends about it and they said, ‘yeah but we don't want chemicals on our food.’ We realised then that we needed to use the same materials found in fruit and vegetables to create this barrier.

Sharpen your idea and talk to investors

I had spent six and a half years of my life watching solar paint dry to figure out which paints worked and which didn't. Honestly, I thought, if someone had been training to solve this problem his whole life, it was me. That was the impetus kicking everything off. 

I sharpened my idea by talking to more people, and then looked for investors. After hundreds of conversations, I sat down for lunch with a gentleman and at the end he wrote us a check for $50,000. I drove to the garage where a co-worker and I worked, gave her a hug and said - ‘we're down!’ That was almost seven years ago.

Experiment with solutions and guess and check results

We got our biology textbooks out and went through the materials: ‘what do we eat? - these were the ingredients we had to work with.’

I was knowledgeable in material science, and understood what was happening at the microscopic level, but it took time to make progress with finding an edible coating that would keep water in and oxygen out for fruits and vegetables.

We built tools with a time lapse system that would take photos of a piece of fruit every hour and stitch them together so we could notice very subtle differences between the formulations and their effect on preserving produce.

The first years were just a belief that if it was possible, we were going to figure it out, and if it wasn’t, we would be happy we tried.

After those first results, we started to think big picture; ‘how would it ripple through the system? ’Instead of food going bad in days, it could now last weeks without refrigeration. That was big.


The Bill & Melinda Gates Grant

Rogers took his ideas to the Gates Foundation because he knew they had the technical and scientific savvy to understand and back the idea.

Beginning his two-page application with, “every form of life on Earth employs some form of protective coating,” Rogers explained how fruit already had the perfect wrapper, and it was just a matter of modelling nature to develop another preservative coating.

Success came with a congratulatory call: “It was no longer a name and a website,”says Rogers, I could then buy stuff and start experimenting. I set up a little lab in my room and started mixing solutions. Everyday it became slightly more real.”

…………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.


Eco-living hacks I’m loving:

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