When Kavita Shukla was 8, she designed a cage cleaner for her pet rabbit, Monet. Removing the cage’s tray to empty bunny pellets and food scraps was difficult and messy, and the third-grader was determined to improve on its design.
“I came up with this accordion-like device with a shovel and pipe cleaners,” she says, laughing at the memory.
“It’s so funny to think of that now,” reflects Shukla, who is now 29 and the creative mind behind FreshPaper. Hailed worldwide as a revolutionary product that slows spoilage of fresh fruits and vegetables, her invention is being promoted as having the potential to impact global food waste.
Beginning with a science fair project at Burleigh Manor Middle School, Shukla spent years researching and developing what many describe as “a dryer sheet for produce.” She was awarded a patent for FreshPaper in 2002 while a 17-year-old senior at Centennial High School, and that’s when “things really started taking off,” she says.
Shukla co-founded Fenugreen with Swaroop Samant in Massachusetts in 2010 in order to market FreshPaper, a spice-infused sheet that extends the shelf life of produce by two to four times. The product, which is recyclable and compostable, was met with critical acclaim in 2012.
Glowing reviews appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Forbes magazine, among other publications. Television appearances followed on “The Today Show” and “Dr. Oz.”
Fenugreen’s website lists 22 awards and honors that have been bestowed on Shukla and what she terms her simple-yet-powerful invention. She has received awards on behalf of Fenugreen that were previously given to such powerhouse companies as Apple and Tesla, and has shared the stage with such notables as Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
For Fenugreen, riding a tidal wave of success means “all of our goals can be that much more audacious,” Shukla says.
With that in mind, she hopes this year to maximize FreshPaper’s impact on India, Africa and other nations. Her company also is working to create different versions of FreshPaper, including one for other perishables such as meats, seafood and cheese.
“Who would’ve thought when I was growing up in Ellicott City that all this would be happening,” says the 2006 Harvard University graduate in economics, whose product is now sold to retailers, consumers and farmers in 35 countries. “But that’s how life is.”
The roots of Shukla’s success can be traced to a close call she experienced more than 15 years ago.
As a middle school student visiting her grandmother in Bhopal, India, she accidentally swallowed contaminated tap water while brushing her teeth. Her grandmother concocted a generations-old home remedy for her to drink that contained maple-scented fenugreek seeds and other spices. Shukla didn’t get sick.
She couldn’t help but wonder how the mixture’s ingredients worked to prevent bacterial and fungal growth, and whether the science behind it might have far-reaching implications.
Back at home, she got a preliminary answer to that question by dipping strawberries into her grandmother’s remedy and finding the quick-to-spoil fruit stayed fresh longer than without the spice bath.
“My parents taught my older sister and me to be open-minded and curious,” Shukla says of their upbringing by a mother who’s a chemist and father who is a biochemist, both of whom were born in India.
“From a very young age I was tinkering and inventing crazy things, and they were not only tolerant, they encouraged me,” she says.
After hitting upon FreshPaper’s formula, Shukla channeled all her energy to bringing her low-tech, sustainable and accessible product to market with the ultimate aim of “getting it to the people who need it the most.”
According to statistics she researched from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.6 billion people have no access to refrigeration and 25 percent of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage.
“There were many days when I felt I was facing insurmountable obstacles,” she says. “There was a difficult phase when I was trying to establish a career as an entrepreneur and working to stay sane while doing it.”
Fortune smiled again on Shukla in 2012 when she contacted organizers of TEDx Manhattan, an annual Technology, Education, Design event in New York with a theme of “Changing the Way We Eat.” She wanted only to attend; they invited her to give a talk.