Why can’t a fresh cut vegetable last longer? Can we offer an alternative to frozen vegetables that provides comparable shelf-life yet still retains the fresh qualities of vegetables in the natural produce aisle? These questions led to research for a solution, and after months of hard work, Vipul Saran (Masters in Food Science, ‘17) and his Advisor, Dr. Syed Rizvi, discovered a process to achieve this with fresh cut peeled potato French fries. The process extends the shelf-life of fresh-cut potato for at least 60 days, without refrigeration, something never achieved before in the space. They believe the process can be applied to other vegetables and fruits, and are constantly working to prove it.
Late last year, Saran sought to commercialize the technology and looked for partners with expertise different than his own to help him do so. In that search, he found four diverse, entrepreneurial-minded classmates who shared his vision to redefine what the industry believes can be achieved in fresh produce shelf-life. Michael Annunziata (MBA ‘17) brings business and private investing experience, Natalia Solano (MBA ‘17) focuses on operations and finance, Harrison Willis (Baker Program in Real Estate ‘17) leads business development, and Rebecca Mosner (CALS ‘17) focuses on marketing initiatives.
After months of customer development and feedback, the group found their product niche – an all-natural, non-GMO fresh-cut vegetable that is shelf stable for at least 60 days, without refrigeration. The company has had success with a pre-cut potato product and is expanding into the avocado market. In the early phases, the company plans to produce and distribute its own branded product to grocery chains for sale in their produce aisle. Sourced produce would be of the highest quality, offering customers the premium product they demand but in a more convenient fashion.
Though the team has its origins at Cornell, the core research had its origins abroad. Saran recalled encountering many problems in his potato exporting business in India. High heat in the Middle East and other countries that would import his product caused rotting to occur, reducing his yield. His desire to solve this problem brought him to Cornell University, a leading institution for food science. Though he saw the problem and technical opportunity, his partners helped create the business strategy and vision for what is now Natural Cuts. “The consumer continues to demand more and more convenience but won’t sacrifice quality. We saw an opportunity to use cutting-edge technology to create a healthy, delicious, and convenient food that capitalizes on this opportunity. We did countless hours of customer development work, speaking with grocery store customers, food service providers, and food entrepreneurs which led us to the conclusion that there really was a huge opportunity in the fresh-cut market,” said Annunziata.
The team credits their Entrepreneurship and Business Ownership course in the Johnson School as a key driver in their customer-first mentality. That experience led them to eLab, where they hope to continue development of their company and product. As one of the 15 teams admitted into eLab this year, Solano says the collaborative environment is key— “the instant feedback, conversations, and workshops enable us to make each other’s products better.” The team also values the consultation and advice they receive from successful entrepreneurs who can point out areas in need of improvement and provide different perspectives. Furthermore, with unlimited access to the new eHub space, the “close contact encourages everyone to share ideas and find solutions to problems,” says Willis.
When asked what characteristic of Natural Cuts made the company distinct other than the nature of the product itself, all members believed the diversity of their experiences and education was a major factor. “Through eLab and the entrepreneurial community at Cornell, we were able to bring together a diverse and qualified team that positions us for success,” said Annunziata. With diversity in expertise and passion for entrepreneurship serving as the common thread, Natural Cuts is bringing a bold approach to a market constantly searching for new opportunities.
To learn more about Natural Cuts, visit their website here and follow their Twitter and Instagram account @NaturalCutsFood. Questions can also be directed to the email domain firstname.lastname@example.org.