College Senior Wins $100,000 Grand Prize in Technopreneurship Competition

New biosensor system developed by tech startup predicts the maturity of stored apples, helping fruit suppliers avoid massive losses.

Katherine Sizov Wins $100,000 Grand Prize in Technopreneurship Competition
Katherine Sizov , Founder of Strella Biotech. Image from KWHS

Katherine Sizov, a senior molecular biology student at the University of Pennsylvania, won the $100,000 grand prize during the 3rd annual ASU Innovation Open held at Arizona State University last 1 February 2019. The contest provides a venue for hardware technology startups led by undergraduate and graduate students to get mentorship and funding.

Sizov founded Strella Biotech to optimize the apple storage industry. Apple fruit distributors and packers can benefit from the system by accurately knowing when the best time is to unload a batch of apples from storage. The decision for timing this is tricky, since apples are stored in climate-controlled environments for up to 12 months.

Sizov learned the industry’s problems in-depth after talking to apple farmers and packing facilities all around the United States. A typical packing facility consists of hundreds of climate-controlled storage rooms, which contain millions of apples each. Storage facilities with crude capabilities for monitoring apple maturity risk unloading underripe produce or worst: overripe or spoiled apples. Sizov estimates that a room of spoiled apples translates to a loss of about a million dollars.

The solution developed by Strella Biotech is to exploit a phenomenon present in the natural fruit ripening process. Sizov explained that “fruits communicate with each other, and specifically, their ripeness, to other fruits, using this particular gas called ethylene.” Strella has developed a biosensor that detects ethylene emitted by fruits.

Although several manufacturers supply the same biosensors in the market, Sizov claims that theirs is more accurate. Similar technologies use man-made compounds to which, according to Sizov is less effective. The patented technology of Strella Biotech uses the same mechanism used by fruits to “communicate” ripeness. These sensors are claimed to detect ethylene gas with a precision comparable to that of gas chromatography.

Since its biosensor is based on the natural mechanism of fruits to detect ethylene gas, the application can be expanded to other fruits other than apples. Strella Biotech wrote on its website that it is “working to expand to other markets, such as bananas and pears” to tap an industry that it says is worth $4 billion.

You can listen to Sizov’s winning pitch here from 21:03 to 31:30.

Watch her interview with KWHS below.

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John is a mechanical and environmental engineer who is fascinated with current and future tech. To this day, he still can't get over how amazing touchscreens and airplanes are.