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This Entrepreneur Has a Creative Way to Improve How Produce is Sold

A Q+A with Katherine Sizov, co-founder of an innovative agritech startup.

If you ask Katherine Sizov what it means to be an entrepreneur, it's all about pursuing what you're truly passionate about. "Surviving on a ramen budget in the early days can be worth it when you're doing exactly what you want to do and working to impact the world in a way that you think is right," she says.

As it turns out, that's exactly what Sizov is doing. Along with her co-founder Jay Jordan, the pair launched Philadelphia-based Strella Biotech in 2019, a company that works with suppliers and packagers, distributors, and food retail businesses to provide data about the ripeness of produce. The goal is to enable these businesses to realize efficiencies and reduce food waste.

The idea came to Strella while a student at the University of Pennsylvania where she was studying molecular biology. After reading a paper on efficiencies in the food supply chain, she became fascinated with food waste and finding a way to help eliminate it.

So far, Sizov says Strella is working with more than 70 percent of the apple and pear suppliers in the U.S. and has monitored more than 2.1 billion pieces of fruit. The company has raised $3.3 million in a seed investment round and is aiming for a Series A worth $15 million to $20 million in the coming months.

Here, Sizov talks about her passion for food, her startup journey, and how she plans to grow the business in the coming years.

How do you describe Strella Biotech?

We reduce food waste and improve the quality of perishable products by feeding the food supply chain with data. Our core sensing technology predicts the maturity of produce by measuring gases—mainly ethylene—that fruit emit as they ripen. If you've ever put an underripe banana next to a ripe banana, it ripens a lot faster than it would by itself. This is because produce communicates with each other with these gases to signal ripening.

We can use this information to create optimization. Right now, supply chains are often based on a "first in, first out" order. So, the first truck of avocados into a distribution center is the first truck sent to the grocery store, but without taking into consideration perishability. We use this technology to help people up and down the chain make smarter inventory decisions.

Is this something you're passionate about?

One hundred percent. Food waste is terrible for the environment. It's also not profitable. If the product is going to waste, people within the supply chain are losing money. I think it's fascinating that you can align sustainability and profitability together and that can drive change.

What has the reaction to Strella Biotech been?

Agriculture is a relationship-focused industry. And, so, it takes time to build a reputation and trust, but I think we're well on our way. The industry relies on historical data, but we're seeing a shift in thinking as our supply chains become more visibly volatile.

What have been some of the hurdles you've overcome so far? How did you do it?

Our team is growing and we're adding a lot of agricultural expertise. We're learning a lot about the industry and what's going on it and the ways people have done business for many, many years. We see ourselves as a tool to improve what already exists.

People think technology solves all problems, but it doesn't—especially when you're talking about a biological organism that's grown outside with thousands of variables. You need to triangulate from all sides to make the best decisions.

You participated in the ASU Innovation Open (and won $100,000) in 2019. What was that experience like?

The way we raised our pre-seed round was by participating in pitch competitions. It was a non-dilutive way for us to, for instance, buy antibodies to run experiments. Every time I do a pitch competition it forces me to really think about the business model and justify it to some very experienced people. The ASU competition was a very big experience in that way. It was a great experience.

You also appeared on season seven of Entrepreneur Elevator Pitch. Congrats on accepting the offer. What was that experience like?

Usually, I get a minute to explain myself but there it felt like 10 seconds! I had never been to Los Angeles to film anything, so it was an exciting experience. Also, I'm not used to making decisions on the spot, so it was an interesting exercise for my intuition rather than sitting and pondering variables.

And I am very excited to begin working with [investor Marc Randolph, co-founder and former Netflix CEO]. With Marc I'm looking forward to finding a with mentor management experience for myself and my co-founder.

Where do you see Strella Biotech in the coming years? How will you get there?

I see us working with and feeding all members of the supply chain with data. Right now, that means scattering IoT sensors, collecting a picture of maturity, and using that information to help everyone.

We see a lot of ways to grow. I'd like to see an expansion of that idea to other products such as the perishability of meat and seafood.

We're also excited about e-commerce. It's really easy to buy a role of paper towels on Amazon, but it isn't so easy to get a slightly underripe banana for one customer and that same-day ripeness avocado for another one. We see ourselves as the solution for that and establishing that competitive differentiation that we're going to see more of with online shopping.

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