Written by Andrew Seale
While in Thailand studying food security in remote villages, Nicholas Steele was appalled by the amount of food wasted because it was ripe too soon or too late for seasonal buyers.
“Just this systematic waste at the farm level… and no one had refrigerators, they barely had electricity there,” says Steele, who was working on his undergraduate degree in disaster emergency management at the time. “That got me angry, coming from a really privileged place and seeing this kind of thing still happening.”
It also kicked on Steele’s entrepreneurial senses. A food experimenter by nature (he had both a dehydrator and smoker at home), Steele had spent the previous year trying to find an affordable solution for freeze-drying – the process of removing liquids from food so it doesn't spoil – before giving up and starting to design his own prototype.
“(I thought) If I could make them a cheap machine, I could plunk it down at the farm where the waste is happening and have people preserve their food,” says Steele.
Thus began the genus and the social mission behind Lyofresh Technologies, Steele’s startup focused on creating a low-cost freeze-dryer.
He brought the concept to different forums for feedback including both the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Save Food initiative and the Food Systems Lab at the University of Toronto.
“The Food Systems Lab brought together a whole bunch of stakeholders from urban farmers and migrant workers to retailer like Loblaws and food processors like McCains or Maple Leaf Foods, says Steele. “(It got) all the people together in the room to try and tackle the (food waste) problem.”
His idea caught some traction, validating his initial suspicions so he connected with the Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science & Technology (BEST) program at York University where he was a student. Steele teamed up with the engineering students and faculty to build some of the necessary technologies for a low-cost freeze drying machine. The law school helped him file a patent.
The idea off the ground, he participated in both the LaunchYU and MaRS Centre for Impact Investing‘s social venture accelerators. Lyofresh also won the Schulich Startup Night pitch competition last October.
Since then Steele and his team have been working on the technology which, when completed, he expects to cut back the freeze-drying time from up to three days to under 12 hours, using half the energy.
“We’ll start by selling to food processors right now in developed countries and then use that money to fund research and development to scale this kind of technology to be implemented in developing countries affordably,” he says.
Steele says there’s no question there will be some education involved but freeze-dried products are already widely consumed from infant formula to instant coffee.
Now it’s time to rethink how we use it, says Steele. “We could send stuff to the far north, ship nutritious food that can be rehydrated and save on shipping costs… (and) it helps reduce food waste.”
Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)