Marty Kolewe was working as a postdoctoral associate a decade ago and wanted to do something to reduce food packaging.
His professor David Edwards, whom he met working with the Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Division of Health Sciences and Technology Langer Lab, presented a unique idea: make edible packaging by reverse-engineering fruit skin.
After years of R&D, false starts and short-lived business ideas, Kolewe’s company now has the technology, manufacturing and business plan and is ready to go. Newly rebranded as Foodberry, the company — previously known as Incredible Foods — serves a B2B market, helping manufacturers produce customized, bite-sized “berries” to create unique and nutritious snacks. The tech-enabled skin holds together a combination of fruits, nuts, vegetables, proteins and flavors.
Foodberry underwent a complete rebrand and retargeting of its strategy since the beginning of the pandemic. Kolewe and Foodberry showed off their new brand and the company’s capabilities at Future Food-Tech San Francisco this spring, handing out paper cups full of malted-milk-ball-sized PB&J Berries, caffeine-packed Coffee Berries, dragon fruit Wellness Berries, blueberry and lemon Yogurt Berries, and roasted red pepper-coated Hummus Berries.
These combos were used as examples of Foodberry’s technology, but the platform is available for manufacturers who want to combine their own flavors and nutrients into a fresh snack.
“These Foodberries, we found where we think they belong in the consumer space,” Kolewe said. “... If you look at all the snacking trends, to us, good food, healthy food, it just fits. We're really excited about the time being right.”
Finding the right target and strategy
The company now known as Foodberry first got its start in 2012 as a project called Wikifoods. It focused on creating edible packaging of all kinds, and piloted package-free Frozen Yogurt Pearls for Stonyfield.
“People were like, ‘Oh, this is really cool,’” Kolewe said. “But it was so so divorced from any consumer vehicle.”
Since those early days, Foodberry has been on two tracks: finding the technology to make its edible packaging technology work and become scalable, and making the end product into something that works from a business standpoint.
Kolewe said both of these goals have taken years. Food tech and R&D are really difficult, he said, and in this realm, manufacturers need to be able to deliver on their claims. The company had to examine what it should do and how to present itself.
Making the berry “skins” is one of the key pieces of Foodberry’s technology. Kolewe said it borrowed some of its ideas from pharmaceutical technologies being developed in the Boston area for microencapsulation and controlled release. It started applying these concepts to food materials, including plant fibers and proteins. And through the years, the company developed ways to use these plant materials as edible and self-contained packaging materials.
The next step was designing these “skins” to actually be a functional food product. In nature, fruit skin comes in different forms. Blueberry and grape skins keep the fruit’s juice and pulp inside but have little taste. Tough citrus skins protect the juicy fruits and can provide flavor in cooking. And coconut shells mostly serve a protective function.
Kolewe said Foodberry takes these different functions into account and can create different skins. The company can remake the skin of an actual berry, keeping juices inside and providing a bit of a snap as a consumer bites into it. But Foodberry says it can also imbue a skin with flavor, like prototypes it has made with red peppers and jelly pastes coating hummus or peanut butter.
Kolewe said there are many ways to create these coatings, including enrobing and bathing the ingredients in solutions, and extrusion and molding. Kolewe said it’s very similar to how plant-based meat companies make plant ingredients with a similar texture and feel of meat. Everything Foodberry does, Kolewe said, makes ingredients into what has the feel of a fresh snack — something that is many steps beyond the old standard of coating different ingredients in chocolate. Instead, Foodberry takes ingredients like bell pepper and makes them the coating.
“I don't want to put chocolate coating on it,” Kolewe said. “I think we can use technology to make different experiences that we don't have enough. To try to recreate that pepper, its snap and crunch.”
B2B and beyond
As Incredible Foods, the company created a consumer brand called Perfectlyfree that offered allergen-free fruit, vegetable and yogurt snacks, which were sold in grocery stores in the New England area and on Amazon. While the product line got generally good reviews from consumers, it was discontinued in December 2019.
Kolewe said the brand introduced a new twist to what the company could do — produce allergen-free food — but it didn’t reinforce the technology they had worked to create and confused their mission.
“It was great for the company in that it pushed us to scale a fundamentally new thing, bringing new technology to scale, but as with anything, not everything succeeds on the first try,” Kolewe said.
The company retooled and got back to what was at its core: the technology that created the fresh snack “berries.” And since it had created a consumer brand, there was infrastructure in place to manufacture at scale, he said.
As a B2B provider, Foodberry is now focused on using its technology, Kolewe said. It is available to work with manufacturers who want to make a uniquely formed snack. The company can use its technology to create a highly nutritious protein “berry” in a form that consumers could find interesting. It can also help companies showcase their signature ingredients, like the hummus berries at the tasting demonstration. Or Foodberry could make something that’s generally unwieldy like peanut butter into an easy snack on the go.
The rebranding and new focus means that there aren’t too many products using Foodberry’s technology on the market right now, but there are several on the way. Beyond the Equator’s Seed Butter Berries — a seed butter inside a fruit puree berry — are currently on the e-commerce market. Kolewe said the company has recently revamped its frozen novelty technology, and the company will be launching a type of frozen treat berries with a major non-dairy provider in the first quarter of 2023.
Kolewe said Foodberry has finally found the area in the food business where it belongs, and he is excited about the future. The team is growing and the company is ramping up to do more soon. And with everything that Foodberry can do, the company has a good place from which to expand.
“We're thinking short term, we're thinking long term: fresh snacking, better foods in a convenient format. I mean, that alone is a nice application of the technology platform,” Kolewe said.