CAMBRIDGE - At 16, Kavita Shukla was an inventor, and a socially conscious one at that. Her story begins when she was visiting her grandmother in New Delhi and accidentally drank some tap water. Her grandmother mixed up a home remedy using extracts from the plant fenugreek and other botanicals to prevent Shukla from getting an upset stomach. It worked so well that when Shukla returned home to Maryland, she reproduced the mixture and tested it around the house. She found it inhibited the growth of bacteria. After several years of research and development while she was in high school, Shukla received a patent for the formula she named Fenugreen and its applications for food preservation.
Now 27, Shukla is a Harvard grad (in economics) and an entrepreneur with her own company and an ambitious goal: to help reduce the global problem of food spoilage. Two years ago, she and a friend, Swaroop Samant, cofounded Fenugreen in Cambridge to turn Shukla’s innovation into a marketable product.
Last summer the pair launched FreshPaper, which are 5-inch-square, waffle-like, biodegradable sheets infused with the Fenugreen formula of edible, organic botanical extracts. When a sheet is placed inside a refrigerator crisper drawer with leafy greens or fruit, or inserted in a bag or box of produce, it can make shelf life two to four times longer. The paper inhibits bacterial, fungal growth, and the enzymes that cause perishable foods to break down. (The sheets are different from produce bags, which absorb ethylene gas to slow down the ripening process.)
Though Shukla had the idea when she was younger, she put her invention aside for years, and thought of it again when applying to graduate school. She wrote an essay about regretting that she had not started a nonprofit to bring Fenugreen technology to developing countries. Samant, a doctor and then a consultant at McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, proofread her essay and saw the invention’s potential for farmers. FreshPaper, Shukla says, “can be used by anyone in any part of the world.’’ There are no chemicals, she says, and “the process of making it is environmentally responsible.’’ The company’s motto is “Fresh for All.’’
Shukla spoke about her invention recently on a panel at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference at the Kennedy School of Government. That invitation followed a string of honors that included a presentation in January at the TEDxManhattan conference (an off-shoot of the TED conferences that bring together new leaders in technology, entertainment, and design). She was also selected by the Kauffman Foundation as one of the 50 most innovative start-ups in the world, and recently won a grand prize in the foundation’s competition for new companies.
When Shukla talks about her product, her eyes light up and her words tumble out. She still has a vision of making an impact on foods globally, but for now is testing the product locally. Last summer, she and Samant passed out samples of FreshPaper to vendors at Cambridge farmers’ markets, and were thrilled with the feedback they received.
The price for eight reusable papers is $4.99. Cambridge Harvest Food Co-op was the first buyer. “I was a little skeptical at first,’’ says one of the store managers, Christopher Durkin. He stuck a sheet of FreshPaper on a carton of blueberries he left out of the refrigerator. “After five days the blueberries were still edible,’’ he says.
The entrepreneurs hope to apply the Fenugreen formula in produce shipping boxes, and come up with others for meats, fish, and cheese. “We’re developing FreshPaper for other perishables in the near future,’’ says Samant.
But they don’t want to expand too quickly. “We still see ourselves really as a social enterprise,’’ says Shukla, who sometimes spends hours assembling the packets herself.
She says this is soothing for her: “I get some of my best ideas when I’m packaging.’’
Fenugreen FreshPaper available at A. Russo & Sons, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500; Harvest Co-op, 581 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1580 and 57 South St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1667; Cambridge Naturals, 23 White St., Porter Square Shopping Center, Cambridge, 617-492-4452; Wilson Farm, 10 Pleasant St., Lexington, 781-862-3900; Fruit Center Marketplace, 10 Bassett St., Milton, 617-696-5274 and 79 Water St., Hingham, 781-740-7332, or go to www.fenugreen.com.