A third of the waste that’s dumped into landfills is packaging such as boxes, bags, and food wrappers. David Edwards has a solution: Just eat it.
Last year, Edwards, 51, a bioengineer at Harvard, launched WikiCell, which makes edible packaging for everything from yogurt to coffee and even alcoholic drinks. “We can basically surround any food or beverage with a skin like a grape skin that’s fully edible, and then consume it,” he says. Picture a martini wrapped in an olive that you can stick in your pocket and rinse off when you’re ready for a toast.
Inspired by the way a biological cell carries water, Edwards set out to design a similar vessel for food and drink. WikiCell’s products keep food fresh about as long as conventional packaging by using natural skins like apples and grapes, he says, with insoluble particles that keep out bacteria and other substances. Instead of skin cells, it makes its protective membrane out of a mix of particles from such foods as chocolate and orange, binding them with carbohydrates. “If you look at architecture, design, and engineering over the last millennia, we’ve been super-inspired by nature, but it’s always the form,” Edwards says. The last 15 years, he says, have seen “this big move to not just mimicking form, but function.”
The value of the U.S. market for disposable wrappers, dishware, and cutlery at fast-food restaurants, hospitals, and other facilities is $20 billion, and recyclable or compostable products are in demand, says Joe Pawlak, vice president at food industry researcher Technomic. Industry consultant JoAnn Hines says, “There’s a lot of interest in edible food packaging. The problem right now for consumers is with taste, texture, and appearance.”
Venture capital firms Polaris Partners and Flagship Ventures are backing WikiCell’s move into the market. Polaris has funded three other Edwards companies, including Aeroshot, which makes inhalable caffeine and chocolate, and Advanced Inhalation Research, which was sold to drugmaker Alkermes (ALKS) in 1999 for $114 million. Polaris co-founder Terry McGuire says WikiCell has had partnership talks with large food and beverage companies, though he wouldn’t name them.
Edwards is also looking for other applications in the developing world, including a skinlike liquid containment system made with coconut flakes that can keep water fresh for days, he says. Later this year, WikiCell will launch its first commercial products: GoYum Ice Cream Grapes and Frozen Yogurt Grapes, with sturdy flavored skins designed to hang in grocery freezers in biodegradable cellophane and last for six months.
Edwards says the company will distribute the treats through supermarkets, though he declined to name them. WikiCell plans to expand into cafés and movie theaters. Customers are more used to portably packaged ice cream than, say, coffee wrapped in a chocolate or caramel shell. That makes GoYum a good starter product, says Edwards, to move consumers “out of the plastic era.”