An innovator’s journey from idea to market can be challenging and complicated – but also rewarding. Our new Innovator Spotlight series explores how inventor-entrepreneurs in our network have evolved since their early beginnings. Our goal is to share key learnings and best practices with early stage science and technology inventors embarking on a path of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Our second innovator spotlight is Aidan Mouat, founder of Hazel Technologies. Mouat is an E-Team grantee. His venture’s innovation helps control produce ripeness and spoilage, reducing food waste in the agricultural supply chain. Hazel Technologies recently received a $600,000 development grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) SBIR program. This is the company’s second USDA grant. It will allow them to further explore the export marketplace and additional applications for its technology to preserve shelf life and reduce food waste.
What was the inspiration behind your innovation?
Between 2014-2015, I was the chemistry fellow at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN). As part of the fellowship I took several courses on climate change and sustainability challenges in major world systems, including agriculture. I was struck by the lack of chemical innovation to improve sustainable practices in agriculture. In most other major world systems – energy, for example – innovation has been progressing for decades with great public interest. However, despite the fact that every human being on the planet depends on agriculture, and chemistry plays a central role in the productivity and safety of agriculture, there are few emerging chemical technologies focused on making our food more sustainable.
Shortly after, Adam Preslar, my soon-to-be-co-founder, introduced me to the concept of small molecule signaling as a method for controlling the physiological response of fruits and vegetables. It connected with my own field of research, which has focused on the manipulation and transformation of similar small molecules. I just didn’t realize that produce biopathways depended on their physiological response to things like ethylene. He brought the active ingredient, I brought the delivery material, and that’s how we ended up developing the Hazel Technologies platform.
How has your mission evolved?
We haven’t wavered on our original mission: to deliver sustainable, eco-friendly chemical technologies to improve the agricultural supply chain.
One thing that has shifted along the way is how we talk about sustainability. The word sustainability means something different to every supply chain stakeholder. For the consumer, sustainability typically refers to clean-label, residue-free, responsibly-grown produce. Those are all important things, but they represent the specific focal points where consumer spending habits are putting pressure on the supply chain.
Growers and packers have different focal points and pressures. For them, a zero waste policy means that they are getting 100% utilization out of everything they are growing, which means making sure every piece of produce harvested gets in the hands of consumers. That’s why we consider sustainability to be a challenge to the supply chain, not to production. No fruit or vegetable would ever go to waste if it could reliably get to customers.
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?
I’ll point out something that I think we did correctly, but remains a cautionary tale. Like most startups we were strapped for resources in the beginning. During that time, we had a lot of interest from potential financial and strategic partners. We even fielded early acquisition offers before we really got out of the starting gate.
It was a tough situation for us to turn down the initial offers when we were still struggling to get our feet under us. But all of our traction since then has proven that we weren’t wrong to bet on ourselves, and not sell ourselves short at the first opportunity.
My point is that everyone wants to capture the most value for the least money. If people come to your startup early on and they want the biggest piece, it means you are doing something right. For us, being good entrepreneurs meant having the discipline and courage to say “no” when the money has too many strings attached, and instead hold out for the best opportunity.
Throughout your journey, what’s been your most valuable skill?
Two things: one is the willingness to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. It doesn’t matter what the task is. If you’re in a startup, it gets done, or you die.
The other is never letting perfect be the enemy of good enough. Startups are a high-risk environment and it is literally impossible to have perfect information. Learning to make good decisions with limited information is the greatest risk management tool anyone can have.
What advice do you have for other student inventors?
A good friend once gave me the best litmus test for someone spewing hot air. I swear by it to this day.
About 10 years ago I wrote a novel. I was trying to connect with an agent to help me get the book published. I sent out many query letters. Many didn’t respond, or sent back very curt “no thank you” notes. However, a few responded with, “I loved your letter, please send me a few chapters and let’s keep talking.”
One day, my friend and I were catching up on the phone. I mentioned that I thought things were going well with the agent search because I was getting some interest. He said, “Aidan, if they really wanted to be your agent, what would they have done?”
You need to honestly answer that question every single time someone approaches you, for any reason. Whether it is a potential hire, a potential investor, a co-founder, strategic partner, or customer. Every single time, ask yourself, “If they really wanted to do business with me, what would they do?” If they aren’t doing it, you need to admit that maybe they’re not that interested, or at least, are only interested on their own terms.
This is a particularly harsh lesson because every early stage entrepreneur is looking for validation, and there is no other industry in the world where 99% of the time the answer is no. Unfortunately, hearing “no” 99 times in a row does not mean that the 100th time is more likely to be “yes.” It just makes you want it to be a “yes” more. It also means you will have to try another 100 times until you find the person who honestly behaves like they want to do business with you.
What’s next for you?
We’ve very successfully proven our business model, and we’re beginning to scale. Production is ramping up, the team is expanding, and we’re on the hunt for strategic partners to help us expand into new markets. Keep an eye out for announcements on our Series A round!