This startup is managing food waste via packaging that slows down ripening
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
GreenPod Labs has won the most scalable startup award from C-Shark Tank she1K, and the TANSEED research grant from Startup TN. The startup was also recognized as one of the top 30 startups to watch by Inc42 Media.
This is the story of a passionate entrepreneur who gave up a well-paying job in the US and moved to India to pursue his dreams.
Deepak Rajmohan spent years working and studying in the food science sector in the U.S. before returning to India to start GreenPod Labs. He loved his job at Danone, but had always had the itch to do work where he would be able to create something of his own, and which felt more meaningful than the traditional job.
He was always aware of how big of a challenge food waste was – both from a climate change perspective and in terms of hunger and malnutrition, but the problems inherent in food waste were significantly different in the U.S. and in India.
“In developed countries, [food waste] is a behavior problem. Here in India, it is not,” Rajmohan explained.
The urgency of the problem is clear. Globally, food waste is estimated to contribute 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, nearly 14% of Indians are undernourished. Rajmohan views solving food waste in India as the first step of many in solving the issue more globally. GreenPod Labs’ solution is a specially formulated packaging that activates plants’ natural defense mechanisms and slows down the ripening process. Sachets with these active ingredients are added to crates of harvested fruits and vegetables, and can significantly extend the shelf life of produce without changing any external storage conditions. In terms of temperature and other conditions, India is one of the most challenging countries in which to reduce food waste, and Rajmohan sees India as a test market for GreenPod Labs before shifting to scale up to other countries with similar climates, in regions such as Africa.
Rajmohan’s passion for sustainability meant having a unique take on solving the problem of food waste in India. Although cold storage may be the most obvious solution to preventing post-harvest loss of fresh fruits and vegetables, refrigeration also requires enormous amounts of energy. With a mission to reduce greenhouse gases, Rajmohan decided to put restraints on the problem he was solving and limit the company to material-based solutions. Part of this decision was the sustainability consideration, and the other was the firsthand market research Rajmohan did once he had returned to India.
“The average farm size in US is 400 acres, in India it’s 2 acres. Farmers knew the problem was there, but they didn’t want to invest in anything or put up cash into any asset. That was very clear. I could go into leasing it out, but that didn’t seem very scalable. At the same time, I was reading about another company who had developed cold storage, and struggled to make any money. That again was a data point – the technology might be different, but the business challenges would be the same.”
Luckily, Rajmohan had both the long-term vision and growth mindset to set about tackling this challenge. He had long been interested in entrepreneurship, and spent years following startups, talking with founders, reading books, interviews – “learning in one form or another.” However, “doing it yourself,” he added, “is quite different.”
Manush Labs was instrumental in helping Rajmohan prepare to take on the role of a founder. His background in R&D was pivotal when it came to designing the packaging solution that has become the flagship product of GreenPod Labs, but as a founder, it is impossible to focus on just one segment of the business.
Manush Labs helped him understand the importance of team building and how to manage people. “A lot goes into this,” he said. The program has also helped connect him with both investors and mentors to support the development of the various skill sets necessary to be successful, and most importantly, to set up a vision. “That is one of the most important skill sets – articulating a vision and what you want to do, and why.”
The company was officially founded in October of 2019, but developing a working prototype took much longer. It was a frustrating process in the beginning, with the company not making progress and the technology not scaling the way the team wanted. In February of 2020, they took on completely new ideas and a new way of approaching the solution. “That was a huge stretch. It was hard to develop that first prototype,” Rajmohan recalled. When they finally did, however, the customer requests started rolling in immediately. Although the company has not yet commercialized the product, he considers GreenPod Labs lucky to already have inbound requests. “Out of the customers we’ve worked with in trials, almost 90% have come in from social media, or a connection from a mentor, or something of that type. That’s been very promising.” Eventually, GreenPod Labs plans to work with farmer cooperatives to use their networks to sell it to their farmers.
Deepak Rajmohan (right) and GreenPod Labs Chief Business Officer Vijay Anand
One of the challenges the company continues to face are the regulatory hurdles that come with approving the product. “There are no products like ours,” Rajmohan says. In addition, the sachets are unique to each type of produce. GreenPod Labs has completed products for three crops and is currently in development for two more. “What we have for tomatoes won’t work for strawberries.” Rajmohan explains. “Each crop has a different defense mechanism.” Despite these challenges, this solution is far more appealing to the farmers they work with than other methods of preserving produce. At a cost of 0.01% of the capital expenditure for cold storage, GreenPod Labs is able to impact the overall income of the customers it works with. “Each customer segment is losing 20-30% of its crops. If we extend the shelf life of those crops, their bottom line increases.” With a company focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the availability of fresh produce, and increasing farmer incomes, Rajmohan has certainly found the meaningful role he dreamed of when starting GreenPod Labs. Story by: Erika Elizabeth Desmond, Manush Labs