Founded in 2012, after winning $10,000 at UC Santa Barbara’s New Venture Competition, Apeel Sciences has subsequently raised $110 million from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Andreessen Horowitz, Upfront Ventures and Viking Global Investors. (Note: I am a very small Angel investor in Apeel)
The company’s three founders met during their time at UC Santa Barbara while pursuing their Ph.D.’s. Upon graduation, they each faced the difficult decision to either start a venture or accept high-paying jobs which leveraged their doctorates. Fortunately, for the fight against world hunger, they decided to make the startup leap.
(L:R) Apeel’s Co-founders: Jenny Du, James Rogers, Lou Pérez
2020 Doug Ellis Photography
Over the subsequent eight years, the company has commercialized edible plant-derived coatings that significantly extend the shelf life of fresh produce and reduce overall food waste – a leading cause of climate change. Drawing inspiration from the natural skins and peels found on all fruits and vegetables, Apeel’s technology has the added benefit of decreasing the need for energy-intensive refrigeration and agricultural inputs, including water, pesticides and fertilizers.
Apeel’s Founder Team
Note: James, Jenny and Lou’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.
John Greathouse: Hello Team Apeel!
You met at UC Santa Barbara. Were you fast friends or did it take some time for the chemistry to develop?
James Rogers (CEO): Fair to say that I liked Lou from the moment I met him. I don’t know that the feeling went both ways. (laughing)
Lou Pérez (VP Technology): James and I met during our recruitment weekend at UCSB in 2007 and he hasn’t left me alone since. (laughs) James likes to tell the story about how “I didn’t like him” when we first met, but like all stories there are 3 sides: yours, his or hers, and the truth. We hit it off early in graduate school since we shared the same advisers and worked in similar fields, so we were usually facing the same challenges and obstacles in graduate school together.
Jenny and I met while she was a post-doctoral researcher in our research group, but she worked on different projects, so I never had a chance to work with her directly during graduate school.
Even so, I was always impressed with her affability, empathy, enthusiasm, and commitment, so when Apeel started to become more real, I thought she would be an amazing teammate so I suggested, strongly, to James, “We need to get Jenny Du.”
Jenny Du (VP Operations): You guys are too kind. James and Lou were in the same building throughout graduate school. They are pretty different personalities, so although James might not have recognized it at the time, it was a lukewarm start, but very quickly the ice was broken between them… (we) haven’t looked back since. (laughs)
Through the limited structured and unstructured interactions, I had with them, I highly respected and admired their research work and enjoyed their senses of humor.
Greathouse: Yes, humor is vital at a startup. The stress is ever present – it has to be relieved…
As I understand it, none of you entered your PhD studies with the intent to start a business, though James, you took several of my entrepreneurship classes, so I may have that wrong. Was it your collective courage that enabled you to divert from the typical post-academic path?
Rogers: I actually went to graduate school because I thought that one potential path for me would be starting a business. And that’s what led me to research solar paint – I thought if I developed an advanced knowledge of how that worked, it would be a potentially interesting business opportunity. That’s why I chose UCSB – they had a Technology Management Program where I could learn how to build a business while completing my PhD.
Du: Unlike James, I definitely would not have expected myself to start a business. But the unique opportunity and the inspiration and vision articulated by James, and the camaraderie and support provided by Lou, sealed the deal for me. At the end of the day, it was an outstanding opportunity to do meaningful work, work on an interesting technical field, and build a company’s culture and values from scratch — what more could anyone ask for?
Pérez: I was interested in academics after graduate school and I planned to start and consult with businesses from that type of role, but likely a little later in an academic career.
When people ask what got me to join Apeel, I usually say, “Great problem, great people, and great place.” What really drives me is solving problems and the idea of getting to work on mitigating food waste everyday was too important of a problem to not accept the challenge. Finally, I love Santa Barbara so being able to start Apeel here really sealed it for me.
Greathouse: Yes, Santa Barbara is incredible – don’t tell anyone…
Do you have any advice for STEM academics who might be thinking about jumping into the startup world?
Rogers: One of the main reasons why things aren’t better in the world is that people think there’s someone else better out there to solve the problem than them. And that’s just not true in my experience. I love the saying, “One cannot expect to discover new land, without losing sight of the shore.”
Du: Yes, agreed. You have to be obsessed with your idea. I say that because you’ll have to deal with innumerable roadblocks: naysayers, skeptics, blockers, and challenges at every step of the way. If you aren’t passionate about it, it could really wear you down and cause you to prematurely give up.
Pérez: Agreed. You should only do it because you want / need to, if you are doing it mainly for financial gain, then it will have a very low probability of working out. Also, if at any point you feel comfortable, then you are probably not challenging yourself or your team enough. You should always have a healthy amount of discomfort in how things are going or not going.
Greathouse: Good advice, all around.
Much has been written about the dangers of starting a venture with your friends. What did you do early on to avoid the pitfalls of mixing friendship and business?
Rogers: The advice you normally get is, “Don’t start a business with your friends.” My advice would be, “Start a business with your smart friends.” (laughs) You’re going to have to have hard conversations but who would you rather have those conversations with? I’ve found friendship to be an ally. The most important element in business is trust. If you start by working with friends, you can start from a place of strength.
Du: In addition to being smart, they have to be friends you can 100% trust and rely on to own the work and responsibilities. I agree with James on this, you have to be able to feel “safe” enough with each other to be able to have hard conversations when needed. Having fun together is simply not enough.
Pérez: Be honest with one another about the business’s and your own strengths and weaknesses. If you would feel uncomfortable having those types of conversations with someone you would want to bring on as a co-founder, then you should not bring them on as a co-founder. We had a lot of trust in one another despite at times not having things explicitly laid out or planned and I never questioned the dedication from the others to ensure this would be successful.
Greathouse: Yes, I’ve always tried to surround myself with folks much smarter than me… which never was particularly hard, in my case.
Research has confirmed that startups founded by a combination of men and women have a higher likelihood of success. What have you done to encourage diversity as a core tenant of Apeel’s culture?
Du: More than thinking about it as seeking representation on the team by an under-represented part of our population, I think our core belief that talent is talent – regardless of the “box” you might be tempted to put someone in… (this) has served us immensely well. If you live our values and can demonstrate that you’ve got relevant transferable skills and/or experience, we would be more than happy to have you on board. Period.
Rogers: What starts diverse is more likely to stay diverse. Echoing Jenny, it really is about finding the best human to do the job.
Pérez: As James alluded, our goal has always been to hire smart, driven people. I wouldn’t say we were very discipline or background focused with hires since we felt if you were a natural and confident problem solver, then you should be able to tackle most challenges. For example, none of us came from an agriculture or botany background, but we had a lot of confidence in our ability to create solutions.
Greathouse: You’ve been together for some time now, through success and challenges. How has your relationship changed over the years? Is it inevitable that the demands of business cause friendships to become more collegial and less personal?
Rogers: Our relationships have deepened over the years. The biggest change is that the amount of time we get to spend together face-to-face has gone done, but that’s just a natural consequence of our growing business.
Du: Yes, we’re in the same country much less frequently than in the past. Even so, I love these two (James and Lou) more and more with every passing day.
There is not one day that passes where I don’t find myself feeling total awe and respect and admiration for their incredible and unique talents and their contributions to Apeel and our people. I love that we can speak candidly about our different perspectives. It’s because I trust that we are all acting in the best interests of the company 100% of the time. No ego. None whatsoever. It’s the best!
Pérez: I would say the relationships has only grown stronger. We still challenge one another regularly and can have open honest conversations about struggles, both professionally and personally. We don’t get to spend as much time together as a group, but when we do it is just as fun or more from when we first started.
Greathouse: What is the most significant interpersonal conflict you’ve faced as Co-founders – how did you resolve it?
Du: I find that tensions, which are surprisingly rare, appear when we haven’t connected in a while in a one-on-one or small group setting. Our individual schedules are so loaded up with travel, etc., that it can be easy to take this necessary time with each other for granted and then keep punting on the time to make room for other things you think are more urgent or whatever the case may be.
Touching base to work through challenges and ensure alignment is essential. That’s really different than doing that in an Executive Team meeting setting. I would say it’s about the kinds of things that affect the essence of who we are, why we do what we do, and how we want to be seen, etc., as an organization.
Greathouse: What advice would you give a young entrepreneur regarding assessing a potential co-founder? What characteristics have you found to be most valuable in making it (the co-founder relationships) work?
Rogers: Search for trust and a relentless passion for problem solving. Early on in a company’s development, you either make it or you don’t. So, there isn’t the time to be checking on people and figuring out whether or not they can be trusted. Finding people you can trust and count on early on in the process is mission critical. What’s more, when you solve one problem, you get a bigger and harder problem to solve. So, you have to find people who enjoy problem solving. That’s all entrepreneurship is – a repeated exercise in problem solving.
Du: In addition to trust, which is key, your cofounders should complement you. It’s easy to say that, but it does take some time to suss that out. You probably need to know yourself a bit better first. And, don’t trick yourself into thinking you can change someone who you think might be really interested in as a co-founder because of their initially attractive skills.
Some things about our fundamental character cannot be changed. But they should ultimately share your appetite for ambiguity, risk, and a near obsession and passion for solving problems. The job actually never gets easier.
Pérez: I would advise doing your best to ensure the person has skill-sets that compliment yours and is someone who loves to solve problems, who is flexible, and ultimately has resolve that you think, at a minimum, matches yours.
Greathouse: Agreed, you need to first be self-aware, before you can properly identify people with complimentary skills or attributes. It isn’t easy for most young people to be objective (about themselves).
Last question. As the company has grown, what have you done to continue protecting the company’s culture, while giving hiring executives the necessary latitude to make the occasional hiring mistake?
Du: Our values are: Teamwork, Ownership, Innovation, Integrity, Humility, and Stewardship. We have always tried, and are continuing to do even more, to talk about and live our values in every way we can. We weave them into the language we use when recognizing and acknowledging each other, we share stories that are intended to help others understand what they look like when put to action.
We have also had to make hard decisions about parting ways with folks who didn’t express the values. More than anything, the weight of our values and the culture as it evolves, is affected by our integrity in trying to “walk the talk.” People ultimately judge you by what you do, not (by) what you say.
Pérez: We have stayed pretty true to the core of our hiring process as we have grown as a company, which has served as a measure to protect the company’s culture. I would encourage any new company to really focus on establishing a hiring process and, even if you don’t have a formal HR function, keep refining with retrospectives right after the interview is complete and three months or so after the candidate has been hired as well. If you have the scheduled retrospectives in place, then I feel it gives more latitude to hiring managers to make a decision. If there is a mistake an opportunity to ultimately strengthen the process overall.