Podcast Episode 14

Connecting Farm To Table Through Technology and Innovation

In this episode, host Ryan Davies interviews Katherine Sizov, the founder of Strella Biotechnology. They discuss how her background in molecular biology led to the creation of tech solutions for reducing food waste. Katherine talks about her journey from college to entrepreneurship, emphasizing the importance of market research and effective communication. Strella has already prevented £20 million worth of apples from going to waste by monitoring over 2 billion apples, and their future goals involve expanding their agricultural solutions using data-driven insights.

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Introduction with Host Ryan Davies and Guest Katherine Sizov

Ryan: Welcome Everyone. I’m your host, Ryan Davies and I’m hosting today’s discussion on Connecting Farm to Table through Technology and Innovation with Katherine Sizov. Katherine, Thank you so much for joining us today.

Katherine: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

The Journey from Molecular Biology to Entrepreneurship

Ryan: Excellent. A little bit of a background for our listeners on Katherine, she is the founder and co-president of Strella Biotechnology. She attended the University of Pennsylvania. While studying in college, she found a startling statistic that 40% of our food is wasted. So, with a molecular biology background, Katherine set out to discover resilient and data-driven solutions for food supply chains. And there at college, at a networking event, she met her co-founder, Jay Jordan, and together they founded Strella. So tell us a little bit about that background and sort of, the university journey and how Strella kind of came to be.

Katherine: Yeah, for sure. So, I studied molecular bio in college. So, kind of on the pre-med track and the natural next step, the progression is to go to graduate school. So, my focus was always on neuroscience and neurogenetics. And I was beginning to apply to graduate school around my junior-senior year. But something about that wasn’t really striking my fancy. I don’t know; my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t see myself working on a Ph.D. for 6 to 8 more years. And so I started thinking about alternative careers and alternative paths.

Addressing Food Waste: The 40% Problem

Ryan: Very Good. I mean, that’s quite the jump going from molecular biology, that side background, into I’m going to be an entrepreneur and gonna start something right.

So, you know, as we mentioned in the intro, you uncovered a stat: around 40% of our food is wasted. So, where did that come from? And how did that kind of come to be? And then where did the idea from that go? From “ Wow, we need to do something about that.” to  “I need to do something about that.” and What can be done here?

Katherine: Yeah, for sure. So, I think my background does have a little bit of entrepreneurship in it. I was part of a lot of groups on campus. my dad started a company as well. And so I’ve been kind of in that space revolving in it. the 40% of food that’s wasted before it’s consumed, the stat was just crazy. It doesn’t feel like it in the 21st century. and immediately after reading that, I had a wave of guilt because I didn’t know where my food came from. I kind of just thought it came from the grocery store. so at that point, I started skipping class, going to grocery stores and farms and things like that just to learn a little bit more about the chain. and the one thing that really stood out to me with my biology background is that, ultimately, we are moving perishable products that are living organisms. But we’re not treating them that way. We’re treating them like commodities. kind of like an iPhone, for example, and that seemed to be causing a lot of problems. And so, could we start grabbing inputs from food that could help us know more about it and then use that information to reduce food waste?

Ryan: And I think you touched on it right there. it’s just that it’s a commodity versus, as you said, a living thing; there are a lot of ticking time clocks, and things like that happen, and not all food is created equal; not all, even all bananas are the same or where they’re coming from and all that sort of stuff. So it’s kind of a bit more complicated journey than we know. So for our listener’s sake, like, walk us through a little bit of that journey and where that data kind of comes from, where it goes? Okay, It’s grown; it ends up on our plates. But where is that waste coming from to cause all these issues that we’re seeing?

Katherine: Yeah, I mean, there are many factors for waste. But our company’s kind of thesis revolves around two major points. The first one is that there’s just a lack of quantifiable data in general. So we know people like growers who can drive down their orchard in their pickup truck and feel when apples are ready to be picked off the trees, and they’re right, but that information isn’t really transferable. And the second issue that I kind of noticed was that the supply chain is super siloed. So we’re kind of playing a giant game of hot potato with perishable products. And that’s not really efficient for the system as a whole. And so those are kind of the two areas that I wanted to tackle when working on solutions.

Ryan: So tell us about that journey? So it,  I think this is a common thing in tech, especially as you recognize a problem and then you go, I’m going to solve this, and there’s no data for it,  Now there’s two different schools here. One is there’s such massive data of information that people don’t know where to start, or there’s not enough information or nothing there that really correlates. How did you go into this process of collecting this data and being able to make sense of it and correlate it to the problems you’re seeing?

Building Strella: From Idea to Sensor Technology

Katherine: Yeah, for sure. So, we started with the second approach, which is insufficient data. So, we built a sensor technology that can predict the maturity of fruits and vegetables. So basically, our technology can measure different gasses that fruits and veggies produce as they ripen. If you’ve ever put an unripe banana next to a ripe one, you see that it ripens faster than if it was by itself. This is because fruits talk to each other using gas. And so we’re basically able to intercept this kind of secret conversation between plants and translate them into a shelf life. And by knowing what the expiration date is effectively on produce items, we’re able to be a little bit smarter about how we’re moving things across the chain. As a company, though, we’ve definitely expanded past that kind of initial sensor input. So, grabbing additional data that already exists in the chain, like harvest information, quality control data, and such, in order to reinforce our models.

Ryan: Creating innovative solutions takes a lot of creativity and clever thinking. You’ve even been recognized by IBM for your innovative work. Can you share more about your process? I sense your scientific approach, so you’re quite methodical in growing your business, turning data into technology and products. Can you walk us through that journey?

Katherine: Yeah, absolutely. So I heard a quote somewhere that was like, good ideas are really simple, but just, you take them to their absolute limit. And so I think that’s kind of, what I did, what my process looks like is, ok, 40% of food is wasted. Why does that happen? How can we solve the problem? How can we really drill down into potential solutions and test them? I think the standard scientific method is pretty good. So there’s a lot of testing, and it makes sure that you understand what metrics you’re trying to hit, what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and breaking that down into bite-size pieces. I think many people get a little overwhelmed with the big picture of this gigantic company in their head that’s worth a jillion dollars. But sometimes it’s a little bit hard to think about what I can do tomorrow. And so figuring out what you can, what you can reasonably accomplish in a short period of time that gets you that snowball effect you’re looking for. 

Networking, Team Building, and Future Goals for Strella

Ryan: And with that in mind. I mean, let’s shift gears a little bit. We go back, and we talk about how this came from a networking event where you found your co-founder. I know you’ve done a lot in that area, the Seattle Geek Wire pitch competition, for example, to be able to grow. I think that’s one of the things. And again, we’ve done a few of these episodes, and in previous episodes, our listeners have heard the importance of a lot of rigid planning. there’s a lot of structure to building a business, but building that network and putting yourself out there and doing that is a key piece of the puzzle. So how have you been able to put that into, put that into action and really, again, put that, so you’ve had this rapid growth and been able to reach so many different people and pick up so much in the technology area?

Katherine: Yeah, for sure. So, when I was still in college, I was pretty penniless. I was actually living on food stamps and stuff. And so I needed to fund even my experiments and things. And so I would regularly attend pitch competitions just to make some money. And the first, like half a million dollars we raised for a company, was entirely pitch competition-based. And it also, like, taught me how to craft a good pitch deck, a good story. What’s compelling to people is how to talk to people because networking can certainly be a little intimidating. Still is to this day. And I also think the nature of my business, which is agriculture, is a very person-to-person interaction like there is nothing that will ever replace meeting someone in person. And I feel like, especially in my industry, I can feel that.

Ryan: Absolutely. And, again, we’re talking with Katherine Sizov here about growing. And being able to bring it into action and whatnot. And you’ve got a unique look at this and being a young female entrepreneur. So there are certainly strengths and drawbacks to that and challenges from that perspective. Tell us a little bit about that. I’m always fascinated by that side of the journey, both being young and trying to grow and then also from the female side of things and different doors that maybe it does or doesn’t open and how some of our listeners who might resonate with that, be able to take advantage of certain opportunities they may not see right now.

Katherine: Yeah, for sure, definitely. the combination of those factors causes me to stick out in certain rooms sometimes. it can come with its challenges. I think for me, the way that I see it is, if I am sticking out, I’ll take that advantage to pitch and try to bring my company forward. Regardless of why someone might be coming up to me, they will get my sales pitch, and hopefully, that leads to a positive outcome for my business. on the youthfulness side, I think, in Zen, there’s this concept of a beginner’s mind of seeing things from a fresh perspective. And I think in industries, especially like, where it’s a little bit kind of archaic, there’s a lot of practices that have been around for hundreds of years. bringing that brand new kind of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, bushy-tailed look into the industry can sometimes be a huge advantage.

Ryan: you mentioned before you’ve got a family experience in entrepreneurship and starting a business and growing. But again, being young and finding something that’s so unique and a great market niche and being able to say, ok, great. This has a lot of merit and value you’ve grown very quickly. How have you been able to kind of grow yourself personally in all the things you need to know outside of the science side or outside of it? Like again, is it networking? Is there, is there education that you’ve taken or a certain place or great resources anything that you can share from that perspective?

Katherine: Well, learning is definitely actually tearing yourself down and rebuilding yourself, I think, is the hardest part of this entire journey. Because it’s a constant process of self-improvement, which everyone wants, but then, the actual process of it is pretty painful. So, I think a lot of my learning has just been I want to do a good job. And so, I will seek out resources in order to try to do my best at it. Although I will say being a CEO is effective, especially at a company my size is usually learning how to do something really poorly. And then, as soon as you get somewhat good at it, you can hand it off to someone else. So I always have a little bit of, like, doing things okay until I can hire someone to do them better. So, yeah, education is super important. I mean, I hop on that with my team for sure; learning is an ongoing process, and it never stops.

Ryan: I think that is an incredibly relevant point for a strong CEO, and I hear this a lot; the ones like yourself who have been successful and quickly and been able to adapt is understanding that I don’t need to be perfect at it and I need to let go of things at times. So that is a very challenging thing. And I’m so glad that you were able to bring that up. And with that in mind, you have scaled the team to quite a significant size in quite a short period of time, it appears like tell us about that journey. I mean, finding the right people, how difficult it is, and maybe some of the secrets to success that you’ve been able to almost unlock for yourself to say, hey, this is where I didn’t do so well in my 1st  journey through this. But my second time now, or my third, I’ve kind of got this system or something that I really like to cling to.

Katherine: Yeah. I think the team is the number one most important thing. It’s the hardest thing and also the most rewarding part of the whole journey for me, at least. I’m very hands-on with hiring. That’s kind of a sacred thing to me. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned there, and I’m speaking from, I’ve been talking about science, but the reality is the thing I’ve learned is that you need to trust your instincts like we as humans. When we meet someone, we know how we feel about them. We know whether we trust them or not. we know we can sense if they’re truly good at their job or not. and so, just kind of leaning into that and learning how to train that muscle. you can make more precise decisions more quickly. It’s kind of my true sense of that.

Ryan: It’s truly amazing to experience that CEO and founder’s intuition, where your entire business relies on data and information, and the ability to connect the dots. But as you mentioned earlier, instincts play a significant role, and it’s crucial to trust and refine them. You’ve also hinted that you’ve faced challenges along the way, so it definitely hasn’t been a smooth journey. Experiencing the CEO and founder’s intuition is incredible. Your business depends on data, connecting information, and trusting your instincts. However, you’ve also mentioned encountering challenges, clarifying that your journey hasn’t been entirely smooth.

Katherine: A significant aspect to consider is market research. Many people have fantastic ideas, but they fail to test them. Just because you believe in your idea doesn’t mean others want or care about it. I’ve personally made mistakes in pricing. Even though I didn’t attend business school, I took a few classes that taught me how to set prices using Excel sheets.

That’s wonderful. But the key question is whether it actually applies in the real world. How can you put it to the test, especially when launching a new product? I believe market research, trusting your instincts, and maintaining optimism are crucial factors. It’s like looking at both sides of the same coin. It’s vital to stay positive and open to possibilities because otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed by various opinions. 

Ryan: There’s a lot to juggle, which can be challenging. To succeed, you need to be adaptable, a bit like a chameleon. In my case, I have a background in supply chain solutions and IoT technologies, but I also have family involved in farming and agriculture. It’s fascinating how I can’t approach both groups the same way, even though they are closely related. And now, you’re engaging with end-users in the grocery chains, which requires yet another perspective. So, how have you managed this successfully? Well, it involves recognizing the environment you’re entering and speaking the right language for that situation. It’s about being versatile and understanding your audience.

Katherine: Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of my favorite things is finding a common language with people. I like people, and I want to connect with them. And so, yeah, it depends on what kind of room you walk into, what you’re saying, and it’s not that you have to say entirely different things. I think you can still be the same person and have congruence amongst all of the different messages that you deliver. but it might just be that certain people have certain interests. So, for example, we have like a biosensor technology, and we have a lot of cool chemistry that we’ve done in order to measure these gasses. But a lot of our customers don’t really care about that, 

I think the scientific community finds it interesting. Still, when we go and communicate that to a customer, we’re focused on the decision that we help the farmer make, for example, because they’re already way too busy, they’re already super swamped. They don’t need more information, they don’t care, they just need help. And so just identifying what the other person needs and is looking for and trying to build a true connection with them. Based on that, I love doing that. That’s, like, a favorite thing for me.

Ryan: You touched on a common challenge – transitioning from technology to a marketable product. Once you have the data and it’s proven, the next step is packaging it into something people can use. You’ve mentioned pricing and market research, but how did this process work for you? How did you manage to create a sensor and introduce a novel concept so successfully, especially when it’s something entirely new and innovative?

Katherine: First and foremost, it’s all about testing. This process is highly iterative, and you don’t reach the final stage immediately. There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not embarrassed by the early versions you put out, you’re not moving fast enough,” and that resonates with our experience. We’ve gone through many iterations, listening carefully to customer feedback and making necessary improvements. Additionally, as much as it might not be everyone’s favorite approach, we relied on cold emails, cold calls, and just showing up to make sales. It’s a challenging and somewhat tedious method, but it allowed us to break into the industry without any prior connections.

Ryan: I absolutely resonate with that. It’s a tale of perseverance and, more importantly, the willingness to confront failure without fear but rather embrace it. As you mentioned, if you put something out there and feel embarrassed by it or your sales pitch doesn’t go as planned, it’s an opportunity to learn and adapt. That journey has brought us to where we are now with Strella. I recall reading a Washington Post article that stated we’re overlooking roughly 15% of apples. Is that figure accurate? Could you share some key numbers, perhaps some intriguing statistics, that you often highlight in your pitches?

Katherine: Absolutely. Up to now, we’ve tracked more than 2 billion apples, which has allowed us to save approximately £20 million worth of apples from being wasted. This is why I find working in the supply chain so rewarding because the scale is enormous, and even as a relatively small company, we can have a significant impact.

Ryan: That’s indeed remarkable. Now, I understand you’re frequently on the road, and it must be quite an adventure to travel around for your work. So, could you share what’s next for Strella and what you envision for the company’s future? What goals have you set in motion to turn your vision into reality?

Katherine: Absolutely, expanding on your point, there’s a wealth of untapped data within the supply chain. Currently, we have data on 15% of all apples in the United States, which is a substantial dataset. Our next move is to leverage this data to develop more advanced decision-making tools. We aim to extend beyond our core products and explore new solutions by harnessing the knowledge and insights we’ve gained throughout our journey.

Ryan: That sounds fantastic! If our listeners want to connect with Katherine Sizov, the founder and co-president of Strella AI Technology, and tap into the wealth of knowledge she has to offer, they can find more information about her and reach out through her company’s website or contact her directly. You might just uncover valuable insights to help your business flourish, just as Strella has.

Katherine: Absolutely! To learn more about us, visit our website at www.strella.ai. If you prefer a more direct connection, you can find me on LinkedIn, where I’m quite active. Don’t hesitate to send me a message. I’d be delighted to connect with you!

Ryan: That’s incredible! So, with that, it seems like we’re wrapping up this part of our journey. We’ve covered many topics, from networking and starting in college to where you are today, constantly moving, shedding light on a massive industry many of us were unaware of. I’ll definitely be more conscious now. So, Katherine Sizov, thank you immensely for being with us today. Your insights are greatly appreciated!

Katherine: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Ryan: And I want to thank again Katherine and all our listeners for this amazing podcast of Connecting Farm to Table through technology and innovation. And I want to thank our listeners. We can’t do anything that we do without you. So, until we meet again with another amazing TBR episode, I’m your host, Ryan Davies. Stay curious, and we’ll talk to you soon. Take care.

Thank you for listening to the Tech Business Roundtable podcast show.

About Our Host and Guest

Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
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“40% of food that’s wasted before it’s consumed stat was just crazy. It doesn’t feel like it belongs in the 21st century.”

– Katherine Sizov –