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Sensors Could Reduce Food Suppliers' (Unintended) Wastefulness

ByFrankie SchembriNOVA NextNOVA Next

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When we think about wasting food, we’re likely to remember the browned bananas or moldy bread we tossed in the trash last week. While changing our behavior at home is important, studies have estimated that around 39% of global food waste happens before items even hit store shelves.

Much of this waste is caused due to the logistics of the supply chain. When vegetables are packed away in shipping containers, food suppliers have no way of knowing if things are starting to rot. By using specialized sensors to sniff out the food’s freshness in real-time and transmit updates to suppliers,

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C 2 Sense , a Cambridge-based start-up, hopes to reduce waste.

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When vegetables are packed away in shipping containers, food suppliers have no way of knowing if things are starting to rot.

The sensor systems, or “electronic noses,” have been around for several years, but have never caught on in the food industry due to cost and lack of accuracy. But Jan Schnorr, CEO of C

2 Sense, thinks their approach can finally get the sensors out of the lab and into the supply chain.

“We focused on creating the next generation of sensing technology, that is smaller and easier to produce, but also with a big emphasis on specificity,” said Schnorr. “Specificity is how sensitive and accurate your sensors in responding to different chemicals.”

Giorgio Sberveglieri, emeritus professor at the University of Brescia, Italy, who has studied chemical gas sensors for over 30 years, agrees with Schnorr. The challenge lies in creating a sensor that is both able to detect only select compounds that make up the smells of interest, and reliably return to a neutral state.

“A bottleneck is occurring where sensor manufacturers are trying to produce very low-cost sensors that aren’t affected by interference or drift, the loss of sensing accuracy over time,” said Matteo Falasconi, a chemical gas sensor researcher at Brescia. Last year, he and Sberveglieri founded Nasys , a start-up tackling many of the same issues as C 2 Sense.

The backbone of C 2 Sense’s nose is a web of tiny carbon tubes that react in response to different chemicals, Schnorr said, but the specificity of the sensors comes from “selectors,” specialized compound added to the nanotubes to increase the reactions to different compounds in the air.

But what about cost? The sensors, said Schnorr, are just “one to three cents of material,” and very easy to produce.” Plus, C 2 Sense recently raised $3.2 million in investments and caught the attention of MIT’s technology-focused venture firm, The Engine.

“We always look for teams with an authentic connection to their mission,” said Reed Sturtevant, general partner and board member at The Engine, who is working with C 2 Sense. “We saw how deeply committed Jan and the team are to this path of helping sense something new in the real world.”

Schnorr and Sturtevant both view The Engine’s support of C 2 Sense as crucial to getting the technology off the ground, and recognize the sensors’ potential, with some more testing and tuning, to make a big impact on food waste and beyond.

“If I step back a little bit, the whole interface between the digital realm and physical realm is a very deep and rich area for invention, both on the science and the engineering side,” said Sturtevant. “The gap in sensors is in detecting the chemical compounds in the air around us. That’s a very deep and rich area to dig into.”

“Then there has always been a gap between people doing the applied work in the lab and people moving it to market,” said Schnorr. “You have larger venture funds who could support a startup, but those don’t typically work with startups at an earlier stage, like C 2 Sense. The Engine is filling exactly that gap with the depth that they have in their team with all the support.”

In the next 12 months, Schnorr hopes that C 2 Sense will be able to get their electronic nose “out to the world, to more customers, to chicken houses, to more food storage facilities, to industrial safety, to people in adjacent industries.”

Tackling global food waste will require creativity and ingenuity, both from us at home, and from researchers developing electronic noses to sniff the food when we cannot.

Photo credit: Public Domain