Fresh Check makes bacterial contamination in foods visible with a simple colour change, through a bio-reactive sticker which turns from blue to orange when dangerous levels of bacteria in foods are detected. It is up to 60% more accurate than the standard use-by-dates indicated on all food packaging and thus reduces the throwing away of food that is a couple of days past it sell-date and still good for consumption.
Alex is the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Check. He developed the company with his 2 co-founders Rob Peach and John Simpson whilst studying for a PhD in Chemical Biology at Imperial College London. He has been included on the Forbes 30 under 30 list for Europe in 2017.
What is the social innovation Fresh Check about?
Fresh Check has developed a new method for easily confirming cleanliness, so that companies can ensure their hygiene standards are up to scratch. Our colour change spray (and future products!) start blue, and if they change to any other colour warn people that there is a dangerous level of bacterial or chemical contamination on a surface. By providing the first affordable test for hygiene, we are helping our users adhere to cleaning standards to reduce the risk of illness throughout the food chain and limit the carbon footprint of food wastage.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
Fresh Check was founded by 3 of us when we were PhD students. As students, we were living close to the breadline and expensive food, like chicken, was something we could ill-afford to throw away. So when raw chicken was just 1 or 2 days past its use-by date we often took the risk and ate it anyway. This got us thinking that there must be a better way to know if food had actually spoiled, and we began developing Fresh Check. Although this label ultimately proved almost impossible to market (thanks to the incredibly small profit margins in food and difficulties in integrating the label into food packaging) the core technology had other uses in the food market, which, in the UK, spends tens of millions of pounds on testing hygiene each year…
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
As PhD students in chemical biology of health and disease when we started out trying to found a business we wanted to tackle a problem that was not only close to our hearts, but that we already knew a lot about. We sat and brainstormed ideas that we wanted to tackle, before landing on bacterial contamination. Then, the 3 of us went off to research and worked closely with each other as we started to understand the landscape. Eventually we split our roles and started to work more independently, but at first we very much worked together.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
At the beginning our biggest fear was talking to customers. Our academic background made us lean towards developing the product in the background, before taking it out and talking to people. It sounds silly but even talking to someone on the phone was something I had to prep myself for, planning how to introduce myself and what I’d need to say. I wish I had an easy fix for how we overcame that fear, but I think it just took time to get used it! It doesn’t take long though, pretty quickly we realised how friendly everyone was and willing to help, especially if you’re just starting out with a new idea!
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?).
Once we had done some research into the issues surrounding contamination and bacterial growth we formed a plan for how to test for dangerous substances. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford to buy anything to make our prototypes so began searching for grants to fund our early stages of technological development. The Imperial College’s Advanced Hackspace provided a Project Boost grant that provided £500 to buy initial materials and space to do some experiments. After our proof of concept looked good, it was time to more thoroughly understand the market. It was at this point we began to see holes in our smart use-by date product that was designed to warn users about spoiled food. Although it was pretty heart-breaking, we had heard from a number of people in the industry that a colour change test for cleanliness might be useful regardless of food, and we pivoted towards our spray.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
We actually tried to avoid public attention at first! We were very worried about our idea being used by someone else before we had a chance to protect our intellectual property. But once we had secured enough funding for protecting the basic technology behind our idea, we started to reach out to people who shared similar concerns. There were a number of government initiatives (like WRAP, which tackles the issue of food waste in the UK) that we reached out to, to discuss what they were doing and to get them to mention us in the wider world. We also took part in high profile competitions, like Shell LiveWIRE, which gained us a huge amount of exposure and ultimately led to our inclusion on the Forbes 30-under-30 list in 2017. Fortunately for us food waste is on most people’s mind, so we didn’t have to do much to convince people that more hygiene food prep areas were better, but if you’re able to explain your cause well enough, I think it’s natural that people start to pay attention. If the problem you are facing is clear enough for everyone to understand, then the way you help people becomes far easier to explain and to grow interest in.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
This was one of the hardest parts of what we did. Our core technology is fairly robust, but there have been hundreds of hurdles along the way, all based on what our users need and do. Different companies have different cleaning routines and explaining the fine-points of how our product works has proven very difficult. We’re still refining and tweaking our spray so it better suits users through an iterative process. Going and spending time with people using our product was the most useful, as it shows us how people interpret what we’re doing so we can better explain it. It’s often not easy to see our product taken apart and critiqued, but it has been one of the most important processes we’ve ever done and worth all the months of testing!
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DYI fundraising?
Raising money for our use-by label was quite simple. Food waste is a universal problem with quantifiable effects on the economy and environment so initiatives like Climate-KIC were willing to fund us. However, as we moved away from that idea and towards our proof of cleanliness spray it became harder to secure funding. To put it bluntly, Surface Hygiene Auditing is not a sexy market. There were limited grants available and many accelerators had no funding for such a niche area. We searched low and high for funding, but eventually found an Angel investor who understood who we were and what we wanted to do, which has provided us with the platform we’ve needed to refine our product for launch.
My advice to anyone searching for funding is to start with grants. They provide free money and you often get feedback on applications if you aren’t successful you can start to understand what people do or don’t understand about what you’re trying to tackle. Plus, they don’t have the emotional weight of borrowing money from friends or family who might not be able to afford it!
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
I’m not sure I can answer this question very well, we’ve not done much in the way of scaling yet! From a network perspective, we simply had to work hard attending conferences, events and simply contacting people until we met people in the know. I don’t know if it’s true for all market segments, but after years of searching we know a lot of the people who make decisions about hygiene which has been invaluable. To scale our actual product sales we deal with a distributor. This has removed the need for our small number of staff to ship to individual companies and has relieved some of the burden of marketing! If you do need someone to make your product for you (and you’re in the UK!) then I’d recommend contacting the BCMPA who help put us in contact with our manufacturers!
How do you change the whole system?
Bizarre as it seems, there is only 1 on-the-spot test for surface hygiene. By developing Fresh Check, we are the first company to offer an alternative to what’s out on the market. This will help save companies money and allow them to more thoroughly test the hygiene of their facilities. Our business may not be the most glamorous or attention grabbing, but if we’re able to prevent even 1 outbreak of infection from bad cleaning practice we’ll be satisfied we’ve helped people out.
What is the one advice you can give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
Keep on going. Bringing anything new to the world is always hard and there will be so many unexpected hurdles. At times it will feel like the whole world is against you and if you really care about the problem you’re trying to solve it can be hard not to take it personally. The important thing is that you listen to what’s being said and see if you can learn from it to keep moving forward. Persevering every day is a struggle, but when you look back at what you’ve been able to accomplish (even if just for yourself) the reward almost always outweighs the work.
Interviewed by Manon van Leeuwen
Alex Bond CEO of Fresh Check
I developed Fresh Check with 2 fellow PhD students at Imperial College in 2017. Before that I did an undergraduate degree in Chemical Biology at the University of Nottingham, which provided us the perfect scientific background to develop our company. Since founding the company I’ve received international recognition by being included on the 2017 Forbes 30-under-30 list (though I credit that as much to my co-founders John and Rob as much as me!). Now I run Fresh Check full time, and can’t wait to start seeing people using our product and the changes we cause in the hygiene industry.
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