Natural Cuts (Mike Annunziata and Vipul Saran)

Feature image: Matt Butler 

“…by being familiar with the potato world, I understand the potential for the business, and the power of the potato to over-throw business and governments in developing nations.”

Cornell graduate students and co-founders of Natural Cuts, Mike Annunziata and Vipul Saran, exemplify why the university is known for its cutting-edge research and up-and-coming innovations.

Natural Cuts is a Cornell-based startup that utilizes a proprietary food science technology to extend the shelf-life of fresh-cut vegetables without relying on refrigeration, freezing, genetic modification, or preservatives. The technology has the potential to reduce food spoilage and energy consumption along the food supply chain, while improving access to fresh produce and reinforcing the importance of food justice domestically and around the world.  The first Natural Cuts product is a potato, shelf-stable for sixty days, 40% lower in calories than all other alternatives, and available in diced and French-fry cut.

Previously, Mike, Natural Cuts’ CEO, worked at Cornell University’s Investment Office and Soros Fund Management, equipping him with an institutional perspective. Vipul, Natural Cuts’ Chief Product Officer, has extensive experience in the Food Science industry, including two years with his own startup, Vibhuti Agro Soya Products Ltd., an organic agriculture and commodity processing export house in India.

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So, how did the two meet, and how did this startup begin?

Mike: Vipul and I met in an entrepreneurship class at the Johnson School.  Initially, Natural Cuts was a term project for that class.  After working with Vipul for four months, I got to see his passion, dedication, and commitment to creating a truly transformative company.  His authenticity really drew me to want to work with him, and dedicate so much of my MBA experience to this project.  Over the past year-plus, we’ve learned an incredible amount from each other. 

The idea for Natural Cuts was inspired by Vipul’s time in India, which sensitized him to the struggles of farmers, and the epidemic of food waste.

Vipul: Before I came to Cornell in 2016, I had just finished my undergraduate studies in Food Science and Technology in India.

I come from a family of third generation potato growers. We use new scientific methods like tissue culture to propagate the seedlings of these crops and provide these seeds to farmers, governments, and multinational companies, like Pepsico, Mc Cain, and P&G. With this agricultural background in the potato world, the urge to learn more drove me to food technology, which, in my mind, is the next step in the supply chain.

During my second year of undergrad, I started my new venture under my family owned company, vibhutiagro.com. Having seen both worlds and understanding the problem of post-harvest food waste, I realized that the worldwide problem of spoilage also devastates farmers who already struggle to breakeven financially. 

So, the vision of this start-up was to provide a platform to these farmers to market their produce in the international markets, and to get what they deserve monetarily while also reducing post-harvest food waste.

 I formed a group of co-op farmers who would do contract farming of organic fruits and vegetables.  In exchange for providing these farmers land for conventional cultivation, we shared in their profits.

We used to suffer massive financial losses from spoilage during produce shipment, especially during summer transportation to the Middle East.  As a food scientist, I tried various packaging and processing strategies to try to extend the shelf-life of these perishable goods.  In pursuit of this solution, I came to Cornell.

And why potatoes first, and not another crop?

Vipul: Well, the simple answer is because I love them. 

The serious answer is more complicated.  First, by being familiar with the potato world, I understand the potential for the business, and the power of the potato to over-throw business and governments in developing nations.  I have seen potato consumption increase around the world, accounting for over 380M Mt (Million Metric Tons) in 2015-2016.  The potato is now classified as the NON-GRAIN Staple Crop.  Second, like avocados and apples, the potato has the tendency to spoil very quickly when peeled and cut. 

So, I started working on potatoes when I first came to Cornell. In August of 2016, when Mike and I started working on Natural Cuts, we realized the great market opportunities.  The potato is known as “AMERICA’S FAVORITE VEGETABLE,” with an average consumption of 46.7 pounds per person in the USA in 2014.

Though the current products for sale are potatoes, additional research with other produce, including avocados and sugar peas, is in the works.

One question that came to mind was whether there are plants that are simply incompatible with the food science technology, and how Vipul and his team of researchers make the decision to choose which crops to work with.

Vipul: Yes, the research with other vegetables and fruits is in pursuit. The science of any fruit and vegetable is unique, and there are multiple factors determining the rate of spoilage of for each. 

Our basic theory is that we use our technology to “kill the science” that leads to the spoilage of these products. There is no hard and fast rule as to which fruit or vegetable it would work for. This is something which needs to be researched: how, and if, we could modify the process and change the parameters of the technique.

Currently, there are two categories of customers that Natural Cuts targets: the food service sector and the end consumer through the retail store. One notable customer includes Ithaca’s very own Luna Street Food.

Vipul: Within the food service sector, our potatoes can solve several problems faced by restaurant owners:

  1. As our product does not require freezing or refrigeration, we can save storage space and energy costs for the restaurant owner wishing to conserve real-estate or lower energy costs.
  2. Natural Cuts reduces labor time and increases preparation speed. Before this product, there has been no quality pre-cut alternative to replace fresh-cut restaurant fries. So, restaurants that currently cut their own fries can save prep time, and those already using frozen options can serve a superior product. 
  3. Natural Cuts provides a healthier product and extends frying oil quality. Our fries absorb 40% less oil than conventional potato products.  Not only does this create a healthier product for customers, but it increases the lifespan of frying oil for restaurants.  

 

For the end consumer in retail stores, we can appeal to someone who is looking to save time when preparing dinner at home and searching for a fresh, healthier alternative to conventional fries.  We see working families and DINKS (dual income no kids) as our target consumer market. 

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Vipul touched upon how the French fries are 40% lower in calories, but continued with an additional explanation:

Vipul: It is 40 percent lower in calories because, in comparison to frying a fresh or frozen potato, the Natural Cut’s product absorbs about 40 percent less oil. Additionally, Natural Cuts fries can be cooked in less time and at a lower temperature than any other French fry product.  This allows for a lower formation of acrylamide, a chemical produced in fried products.

Regarding entrepreneurship and business-building, Mike introduced Cornell’s eLab, which influenced Natural Cuts’ genesis.

Mike: eLab is Cornell’s on-campus accelerator, which provides student entrepreneurs with resources, mentorship, and support to help turn their business ideas into a reality.  Mentors Ken Rother, Steve Gal, Tom Schryver, and Brad Treat run a 6-month, 4.5-credit intensive that takes students from the idea phase all the way through to actualization.  Through this, we network with other student entrepreneurs on campus and have a great platform to help build out business. 

What are some of the successes and challenges that you and Vipul have faced so far?

Mike: Too many failures to count, but also lots of successes! On the success side, we won the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition, the Cornell Venture Challenge, and took first Place in the New York State Business Plan Competition’s Advanced Tech Track category. 

More qualitatively, we continue to work together well and take small steps in executing our vision.  I think we both share the same passion to make Natural Cuts a reality, but our ability to stay focused on the tasks at hand and moving the ball forward is something that differentiates us.

On the failures side, I think the biggest hurdle for us has been introducing a relatively new, *~sciencey~* product into the market and appropriately educating consumers.  We still grapple with the best way to explain our technology/product, and think that will be a key for success in the long term.

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In addition to Vipul’s original inspiration, injustice towards farmers and food waste, Natural Cuts is also concerned about world hunger. Is Natural Cuts currently partnering with any organization abroad to help address world hunger, and are there any plans to address domestic hunger?

Mike: We haven’t actively partnered with any organizations yet.  Making strides towards solving world hunger is part of our longer-term vision, and as we scale our technology and begin to profitably grow our business, we believe our technology could have a profound impact on produce shelf-life, and thus food waste reduction.  Waste that occurs due to lack of frozen/refrigerated infrastructure, particularly in third world countries, is massive and is a leading cause of malnourishment.  You can look up the Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise Initiative aimed at finding solutions to solve these issues.  We will actually be speaking at Food Waste & Loss Business Innovation Lab event in NYC on June 8th, hosted by the Foundation. 

And lastly, what challenges do you anticipate overcoming in the future, and what are you excited about?

Mike: The biggest challenge we face is scaling our production process.  Right now, we are operating at limited scale and aren’t in a position to meet demand.  A lot of people have tried our product and loved it, and we want to get it in their hands!  While this is something scary to face, it’s also something incredibly exciting.  When we open our doors for commercial production on that first day, it will be a very special moment for me and Vipul.

To learn more about Natural Cuts, visit its website and connect through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

 

All additional images in this post were sourced from https://www.natural-cuts.com/. 

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