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From Food Waste to Biomass, NUVention Alum Seeks Sustainable Solutions

A startup aiming to fight food waste just raised a seed round to grow their venture.

Aidan Mouat (PhD, chemistry, 2016) is a Northwestern alum, and Founder and CEO of Hazel Technologies, LLC, a foodtech startup that aims to solve the global food waste problem. During his time at Northwestern, Aidan was an ISEN Cluster Fellow and Teaching Assistant and alum of the NUvention: Energy course, a cleantech entrepreneurship course offered jointly by ISEN and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

ISEN: What is your Northwestern affiliation?

I’m a Northwestern alum, I graduated in 2016 with a PhD in Chemistry and much of that time was spent working under the mentorship of Professors Tobin Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Peter Stair, Department Chair, Chemistry.

What did you research during your PhD?

I studied and invented new processes for improving catalysts. Catalysts lower the energetic input for a desired chemical reaction and catalytic processes are fundamental to every aspect of human life. Catalysts are used to convert crude oil into refined fuels, to create plastics and synthetic materials that go into our houses, and to clean up the emissions from cars. Traditionally, catalytic materials have been very difficult to study because the tools to understand heterogenous catalysts, or catalysts whose phase (solid, liquid or gas) differs from that of the reactant, are fairly limited. My research focused involved developing new processes for generating heterogenous catalysts of superior performance that were relevant to the energy industry—such as biomass to fuel conversions.  

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree at Northwestern over other schools?

The thing that most attracted me to Northwestern was the spirit of collaboration within the university and also with industrial partners. The challenges of making a technology work in the real world do not stop at an academic institution. Research institutions in the US are too comfortable with ending at proof of concept, but the researchers here partner with companies that are most interested in taking their ideas to market. There’s a sense that if you focus on the right problem, you have a pipeline to develop a technology with real world applications and partnerships that could make it viable as something that could change the world.

What is the most relatable or impactful piece of your research? What should we look forward to in your field and why should we be excited?

The biggest thing in my field of research right now is the search for alternative feedstocks. The consequence of moving from an oil- to biomass- based economy (think ethanol and methanol) is that you have to figure out where all of the other chemicals are going to come from that used to come from oil. Take polyethylene, for example. Ten kilograms of polyethylene are produced per person each year and it all comes from an ethylene feedstock that is oil derived. If we ran out of oil reserves tomorrow, or we couldn’t tolerate more emissions, we would simultaneously shut off our access to plastics. Researchers in my field are searching for alternative feedstocks and developing new processes for the creation of rubber and plastics.

My colleagues and I were looking for new kinds of catalysts for those exact kinds of large-scale transformations. We worked with a particular catalyst that converts biomatter into biodiesel, a process which typically uses catalysts that are environmentally harmful. Rather than using such catalysts, we used carbon and molybdenum, both earth abundant materials that are much less harmful than those previously used and operate at much lower temperatures. Our research showed that you can use this abundant, cheap, and environmentally-benign alternative to create biodiesel.

How did you first hear about ISEN?

I was an ISEN Cluster Fellow from 2014-2015. Through this fellowship, I applied to take ISEN 430 NUvention: Energy, a cleantech entrepreneurship course offered by ISEN and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. My company, Hazel Technologies (HazelTech) spun out of that class, and received its first seed funding from ISEN, which gave us the confidence to move forward with the idea.

What problem does your company, HazelTech, address and how?

We are trying to solve the problem of food waste. Every year across the word, 1 trillion pounds of agricultural products goes to waste. The US alone loses $86 billion each year to food waste, which has prompted the US Department of Agriculture to set the goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. We are looking to impact the food distribution, vender, and consumer markets with our technology.

How does it work and what struck you about this technology as ready for market?

The biodegradable technology, a capsule called FruitBrite, doubles the shelf life for fruit and vegetables by slowing the aging process in plants. The technology inhibits a plant’s ability to produce ethylene, the hormone that causes it to ripen and spoil. The concept was born in the brainstorming process between one of our other co-founder, Adam Preslar, and myself. Adam’s a biochemist and I’m a materials and synthetic chemist. He was interested in modifying the behavior of living things, and I was working to design better materials for critical energy processes. When we found the a patent that could support our technology, we knew that our expertise would allow us to refine it and apply it to a common problem. We realized there was a huge gap in the food waste space and we had all the elements to deliver a simple, cheap, and reliable product with a huge potential impact.

What is your vision for the future of Hazel Technologies?

We think we’re trying to solve the world’s biggest problem. You can make an argument whether that’s food or energy, but at the end of the day if you can’t eat, it doesn’t matter what kind of gas you’re burning. In terms of scope, size, and impact, it’s hard to imagine a bigger problem.

In industrialized nations, we waste food at all levels of the supply chain, while in some parts of the world, that supply chain doesn’t exist. There is a huge disparity there and it’s not a problem with the production of food. Hazel Technologies is about making better use of the food we grow, solving those supply chain problems, and getting food to where it’s most needed. We like to say that we’re in the business of feeding the world by stopping food waste. 

What phase is Hazel Technologies currently in and what should we expect from you in the near future?

Hazel Technologies recently took home the top prize of $500,000 at the Clean Energy Trust Challenge and we have received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Venturewell, the Rice Business Plan Competition, and the Northwestern University Venture Challenge. I and my entire team are committed to taking this product out of the pre-commercial phase and into the product implementation phase.

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