Science & Technology

MIT Startup Wraps Food in Edible, Imperceptible Silk Coating for Better Shelf Life

stop meals waste. Marelli has teamed up with different Boston-based scientists to kind Cambridge Crops, a spinout firm utilizing silk applied sciences to increase the shelf lifetime of all kinds of perishable meals. Credit score: Cambridge Crops

Cambridge Crops develops an edible, imperceptible coating that may substitute plastic packaging to protect meats and produce.

Benedetto Marelli, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, was a postdoc at Tufts College’s Omenetto Lab when he stumbled upon a novel use for silk. Making ready for a lab-wide cooking competitors whose one requirement was to include silk into every dish, Marelli unintentionally left a silk-dipped strawberry on his bench: “I got here again nearly one week later, and the strawberries that had been coated had been nonetheless edible. Those that weren’t coated with silk had been utterly spoiled.” Marelli, whose earlier analysis targeted on the biomedical functions of silk, was surprised. “That opened up a brand new world for me,” he provides. Marelli considered his inadvertent discovery as a chance to discover silk’s potential to handle the difficulty of meals waste.

Marelli partnered with a number of Boston-based scientists, together with Adam Behrens, then a postdoc in the lab of Institute Professor Robert Langer, to kind Cambridge Crops. The corporate goals to iterate and increase on the preliminary discovery, utilizing silk as its core ingredient to develop merchandise that reach the shelf lifetime of all kinds of perishable meals. The corporate’s expertise sees broad impression on extending the shelf lifetime of complete and reduce produce, meats, fish, and different meals. With assist from a startup competitors and subsequent enterprise capital, Cambridge Crops is supplied to extend world entry to recent meals, enhance provide chain efficiencies, and even allow new merchandise altogether.

One-third of the worldwide meals provide is wasted yearly, but over 10 p.c of the inhabitants faces starvation.

Veggie noodles with out (left) and with Cambridge Crops’ silk-based preservation remedy. Credit score: Cambridge Crops

Food waste has large social, financial, and well being implications that have an effect on developed and creating nations alike. Whereas many applied sciences have emerged aimed toward extending the longevity of recent meals, they usually make use of genetic modifications, environmentally dangerous packaging supplies, or are expensive to implement. “Thus far, the vast majority of innovation in food- and ag-tech relies on genetic engineering, plant engineering, mechanical engineering, AI, and pc science. There’s a number of room to innovate utilizing materials, like nanomaterials and biomaterials,” explains Marelli. The professor views expertise like silk as a chance to mitigate lots of the points dealing with the meals trade with out altering the innate properties of the meals themselves.

Silk’s strengths stem from the fabric’s pure simplicity, honed by millennia of evolutionary biology. Cambridge Crops makes use of a proprietary and environment friendly course of utilizing solely water and salt to isolate and reform the silk’s pure protein. This makes Cambridge Crops’ silk coatings straightforward to combine into current food-processing traces with out the necessity for expensive new tools or modifications. As soon as deposited on the floor of meals, the silk coating types a tasteless, odorless, and in any other case imperceptible barrier that slows down the meals’s pure degradation mechanisms. Relying on the meals merchandise, the outcome can present as much as a 200 p.c enhance in shelf life. Not solely does that allow much less meals waste, however that additionally reduces the stress on chilly chains, permitting shippers to cut back greenhouse gases in transportation.

Cambridge Crops gained early trade traction after successful first place in the 2017 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, a contest for early-stage startups sponsored by Rabobank and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Techniques Lab (J-WAFS) and supported by the student-run MIT Food and Agriculture membership. The technical suggestions and trade connections Cambridge Crops leveraged by its participation in the competitors proved invaluable in figuring out key ache factors and market alternatives in the meals trade that could possibly be addressed by its core expertise. “It was nice for us,” explains CEO Adam Behrens. “[The prize] was necessary for doing technical validation in addition to forming early worth propositions.”

Cambridge Crops has since raised two rounds of financing, each led or co-led by The Engine, which helps incubate startups engaged on “powerful tech.” These have been mixed with awards from AgFunder and a number of Massachusetts Clear Vitality Heart grants. The preliminary successes even merited a point out in Invoice Gates’ “Gates Notes,” and by an organization tackling meals waste naturally.

Behrens maintains that buyers’ contributions transcend strictly their financial worth. “Our buyers have been an integral a part of our early stage success … including worth in all types of the way — from model positioning to total technique.”

Behrens and Marelli view Cambridge Crops’ expertise as a real platform, reaching far past simply that preliminary strawberry. Not solely can the expertise prolong the shelf lifetime of complete produce, but it surely additionally sees a dramatic impact on reduce produce, meats, fish, and processed meals. Cambridge Crops is leveraging its breadth of utility to handle the broader wants of the meals trade by strategic partnerships.

Cambridge Crops is optimistic about silk’s potential to mitigate lots of the challenges dealing with complicated meals networks. “We predict that our expertise is one that may truly allow [the elimination of plastic food packaging],” provides Behrens.

Within the classroom, Marelli tries to instill a way of pleasure about expertise’s position in the way forward for meals and agriculture, resembling in his Division of Civil and Environmental Engineering class, Supplies in Agriculture, Food Safety, and Food Security. “They see an angle on agriculture and meals science that they by no means considered,” he explains, “and so they see how a lot it may be a technology-driven sector.” As Cambridge Crops prepares for the industrial launch of its personal patented expertise, it’s poised to deal with among the most intractable obstacles dealing with world meals networks to cut back waste and make nutritious meals extra accessible to all.

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