Posted on September 5, 2019
When biology student Richardos Lebbos saw the extent of the damage done to the apple produce in 2017- where tons of Lebanese apples were thrown on the ground after being banned in several countries, he knew he had to come up with a solution.
“I remember hearing about the crisis of apples being thrown because of the high price of cold storage and other problems,” Lebbos told Berytech. “I was in a taxi at the time, and I had an idea to do something that would preserve the shelf life of the apples.”
Lebbos rushed to the university lab in USEK, which he had full access to as an employed student and started working on creating a starch-based liquid that acts as a bio-coating for fruits and vegetables and extends their shelf life. Starch, in scientific literature, is known to be a natural polymer that is used in many industries. What Lebbos wanted to do was create a liquid that could turn starch into an invisible layer that is transparent on fruits, and that would consequently act as a barrier to oxygen and bacteria, and hence a barrier to the oxidation of fruits. Preventing the oxidation of fruits extends their shelf life which was what Lebbos was looking to do. “Fruits that are not exposed to oxygen, and therefore do not have oxidation taking place, have more than twice the shelf life without cold storage,” he explained.
The liquid was invented for businesses such as big farmers and retailers that import and export fruits. These retailers usually have a wax line where they polish the fruit with a chemical to make it shiny. “I plan to replace this chemical with the Startchy liquid,” said Lebbos. “Once you spray the fruit with the liquid and dry it, it will be ready for shipping without cold storage.”
It was while working at the lab that Lebbos met his two co-founders, pharmacologist Kayssar Eid and agricultural engineer Tony Barcha, both of them USEK students. The trio decided to enter the Agrytech hackathon of 2017, the first hackathon organized by Berytech under their agri-food innovation program. They won second place with a prize of $1,500.
“It was after we finished our prototype in the lab that we decided to apply for batch 1 of the Agrytech Accelerator at the end of 2017,” said Richardos. “The decision came from the fact that we were science students who didn’t have the resources to take this invention to the next level and turn it into a business, and Berytech gave us a great opportunity to do that. They weren’t just offering business support and mentoring; they were offering the full package with funding and networking over the course of 12 months.”
During those 12 months, Startchy passed all three phases from the bootcamp to validate their innovation, to acceleration where they continued to work on their product and get traction with support grants and finally to be incubated for 6 months and benefit from matching grants and softlanding in both Europe and the US. They received a total funding of $47,300 through the Agrytech Accelerator program.
With the support of Berytech, Startchy was registered in the US, which allowed the team to test their product with Stemilt – the biggest exporter of apples in the US and one of the biggest in the world. “We did a test with Stemilt on their apples, where we coated them with our Startchy liquid, and it worked! We saw an extent of the shelf life twice and more. They gave us a letter of intent, and now we are working together,” boasts Lebbos.
Stemilt’s letter of intent was essential in helping the Startchy team raise their seed fund by approaching two European giants: German producer of technology-based natural ingredients Dohler, which invested in Startchy a total of $600,000, and the Danish Maersk growth program (incubation program) for international startups worldwide, which selected Startchy among 30 other shortlisted global startups. After 30 grueling days with Maersk in Copenhagen, Startchy was selected along one other startup for a cash investment of $500,000.
“So now, thanks initially to Berytech, we have Dohler Ventures as our industrial and production partner, and at the same time we have Maersk as our implementation partner because they have the biggest network of customers, from farmers to retailers,” Lebbos explains.
The Startchy team is now finalizing the industrialization of their product by partnering with Dohler, and they’re working on getting the certification to enter different markets, beginning with the US market.
Also, the trio are going to run pilot trials with big suppliers and customers starting September. “Hopefully, we will hit the market soon in the beginning of 2020,” comments Lebbos.
Last but not least, Startchy might be launching their series A funding round between September and December with the support of Berytech. “This way we can enter the market faster and expand the R&D and sales force capacity.”
“Berytech has been a source of financial and business mentorship support to us from the beginning, boosting our knowledge in the startup world, helping us to validate our market and connecting us with a network of professionals, investors and customers.”