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Saudi student’s high-tech war on food waste

Biotech breakthrough helps Silicon Valley startup tackle $35 billion global problem

JEDDAH: A Saudi student has launched a Silicon Valley startup to tackle the problem of food waste, a global issue that costs $35 billion annually, according to the UN.

Asrar Damdam, a King Abdullah University of Science and Technology student, set up UVera, a biotech company that uses innovative technology to increase the shelve life of fresh food.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, leaving millions around the world hungry.

UVera’s goal is to help to halve food waste by 2030 by employing technology and innovation.

“Besides its economic effects, food waste is responsible for sending 3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change,” Damdam told Arab News.

The 26-year-old scientist’s chemical-free solution uses a specific ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilize food, destroying different types of bacteria, viruses and pathogens that cause spoilage.

“The effect of our technology has been proven by scientific experimentation and examination, and showed positive results on different kinds of fresh produce, including meat,” she said.

Established in June 2019, the startup owns intellectual property rights to its technology, which has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FASTFACT UVera’s goal is to help halve food waste by 2030 by employing technology and innovation.

UVera’s target market is restaurants, where its food preservation methods will be especially useful.

Damdam, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in nanotechnology, said her biggest challenge was learning about business while building the product in a minimal timeframe and with limited financial support.

She worked solely on building her minimum viable product (MVP), filing the patent, along with evaluating candidates who are interested in joining her company.

“That was quite challenging considering the limited financial resources and the high cost of living in California,” she said.

However, the startup’s team now includes combined expertise in engineering, technology, scientific research, business development, marketing, strategy and hardware manufacturing.

Damdam’s Silicon Valley odyssey began with a Misk foundation fellowship in 2019 to attend an entrepreneurial training program at Draper University.

More than 780 of the program’s graduates have launched startups and raised more than $220 million in venture funding.

Damdam won the Draper University pitching competition from 116 participants in 18 countries. “UVera was ranked the best investment business idea by more than 30 venture capitalists and investors from Silicon Valley,” she said.

Silicon Valley is home to 2,000 leading tech companies, and offers young entrepreneurs a chance to learn from experts and utilize first-class resources.

“As a scientist, I wanted to learn about business and entrepreneurship from world experts,” said Damdam. “So, I managed to have a lot of one-on-one meetings with angel investors, venture capitalists, attorneys, entrepreneurs and early startup employees to learn from their experiences.”

Although still in its infancy, UVera believes its technology will add value to every kitchen, including restaurants. The startup launched a seed fundraising round this month.

Damdam graduated from Effat University in Jeddah with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2016. She completed her master’s degree in electrophysics at KAUST in 2018.

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