Asrar Damdam, Saudi founder of biotech company Uvera. Image provided.
From appearances, Asrar Damdam may not be what you expect from a scientist. Poised and affable, she has come a long way since her marathon sessions in the lab, and these days she rarely reaches for her white lab coat. Today, she is wearing the many hats of a business owner and entrepreneur.
The 28-year-old Saudi is an accomplished researcher and scientist and the founder and CEO of Silicon Valley-backed biotech startup, Uvera. By incorporating food preservation technology within hardware that can be placed on countertops or floors, Uvera’s goal is to increase the shelf life of food and cut waste. “Currently, we are raising $3 million and working tirelessly to hit our big milestone of the consumer-product commercial launch in early 2022,” smiles Damdam.
The CEO believes she has cracked the code for a global problem. It has been estimated that if food waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The food sector accounts for around 30% of the world’s primary energy consumption and about 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions. According to some reports, approximately 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions would be eliminated if food waste was eradicated altogether.
These are thought-provoking numbers. Each year, the UN estimates that a third of all food produced—equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes worth around $1 trillion—ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices. Enter Uvera. The startup’s technology uses a specific wavelength of ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilize food, destroying different bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that cause spoilage and foodborne illnesses. Now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the biotech claims that its patent-pending light-based tech will be able to predict when fresh food will spoil and extend its shelf life by up to 63% on average within 30-seconds. Its ultimate goal is to help halve food waste by 2030 by reducing per capita waste at retail and consumer levels and minimizing food losses along production and supply chains.
Established in June 2019, the early-stage startup is headquartered at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Research and Technology Park in Saudi Arabia, with manufacturing taking place in Taiwan and China. And while Damdam declines to disclose the consumer product’s price point, she insists the hardware will be chemical-free, compact, portable, and user-friendly.
So far, Uvera appears to be a pretty unique offering. One comparable competitor is London-based startup Winnow Solutions, which uses AI-enabled computer vision to help chefs pinpoint and automatically track food waste—but Winnow’s awareness-motivated tool is vastly different from the UV LED solution Damdam is presenting. “UV LED is the only technology that can emit pathogen-killing UV light while enjoying unparalleled compact size, reliability, and longevity,” clarifies Professor Dr. Xiaohang Li from KAUST. “UV LEDs are extremely promising for water, air, and various surfaces, including food.” They can also help cut down carbon emissions during the transportation and storage of food as temperatures won’t need to be as low.
Uvera is not Damdam’s first foray as an inventor. While studying for her master’s degree in electro physics at KAUST, she created a “heart sleeve”—a reconfigurable electronic platform made of a honeycomb serpentine silicon designed explicitly to be a heart-assistive device. She later received a L’OREAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Young Talents Award for her efforts. She first stumbled upon the power of UV technology in 2018, during her PhD, also at KAUST. One of the courses taught by Dr. Li focused on optimizing the internal quantum efficiency and the radiative efficiency of UV LED semiconductors. While studying for the course, Damdam encountered a 2013 research paper by Steven Britz et al., which demonstrated the effect of UV light in extending the shelf life of fresh food. “I was fascinated by this scientific discovery that needed no human intervention to work,” she remembers. Curious to see how far the idea could go, Damdam ordered some UV LEDs to build a prototype.
Having found her calling in science, Damdam’s journey as an entrepreneur began a year later, in 2019, when a friend introduced her to an entrepreneurial training program in California sponsored by Saudi’s MiSK Foundation. She applied and got selected to attend the Summer 2019 Hero Training residential program at Draper University in Silicon Valley. She decided to take a year off from her PhD, but even so, she found the program tough. “My confidence was very low during the program. I was the only science researcher with zero business knowledge,” she recalls.
At the end of the five-week pre-accelerator program, Damdam pitched her business idea for Uvera and was placed first out of 116 participants from 18 different countries. Her pitch was rated as the most investable business idea by over 30 venture capitalists, investors, and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley.
“I was a small fish in a big pond of experts, and I won—I thought I was just lucky,” she says modestly. To others, she seemed unfazed. “While Uvera was merely at the idea phase, Asrar had been challenged by many judges and potential Silicon Valley investors at the so-called ‘Grill-Night Pitch’ events, yet none of them got her ‘grilled’ at all,” adds Taiwan-based Ryo Lee, fellow Draper University alumna and Uvera’s Manufacturing Director.
Damdam’s victory led to a series of quickfire milestones. She incorporated Uvera in the U.S. in June 2019 and began building the prototype while simultaneously learning about business. While developing her minimum viable product, she received her first investment offer from Tim Draper, an American venture capitalist and founder of Draper University. “I had to ask Tim to postpone the investment offer by two months so I could develop the prototype and learn about fundraising instruments like valuation and convertible notes,” Damdam recalls. In August 2020, she closed a $150,000 pre-seed funding round led by Draper University Ventures and two Saudi-based angel investors.
A scion of a Silicon Valley investing dynasty, Draper is also a founding partner of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which has funded category-defining firms such as Skype, Baidu, SpaceX, Twitter, and Tesla. He saw something promising in Damdam. “Uvera has a large market potential, and Asrar is solving important problems,” Draper explains.
From providing the facilities and tools to build the prototype to encouraging the founder to operate out of the Middle East, Draper served as a crucial mentor to Uvera’s early establishment, but since returning home to Jeddah in March 2020, Damdam has driven the startup’s business strategy. “There is a considerable gap between science and entrepreneurship; hence, many great scientific discoveries and innovations never saw the light of day,” she muses. “One of my main goals is to contribute to bridging the gap between science and our everyday life.”
Regionally, Uvera is receiving positive feedback. It has been riding a wave of wins and securing multiple grants through its participation in regional startup competitions. The company ranked second in the Idea Track of the 2019 MIT Saudi Enterprise Forum and was selected among Saudi Telecom Company’s (stc) first intake for its impactU program. In March 2021, Uvera was chosen to receive the Taqadam Accelerator Investor’s Choice Award of $140,000 in zero-equity funding among 37 technology startups, bringing its total raised capital to date to $320,000.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Over the past year, Uvera has experienced delays in prototyping due to the closure of labs amidst the global pandemic. Still, conducting trials and acquiring various design and safety certifications remain the startup’s current priority. After the consumer product hits the market and sufficient funding is secured, Uvera will shift gears to build its industrial product, targeting the hospitality sector. It’s a sizeable market opportunity; the industry is globally responsible for over $100 billion in food waste costs. Commercial kitchens alone can waste up to 20% of food purchased, often equivalent to their total net profits.
As Damdam spearheads Uvera’s latest fundraising round and consumer product launch, she’s also looking to penetrate the Saudi market. Given that 31% of investors in Saudi startups in H1 2021 were based outside the country, according to MAGNiTT data, Uvera could benefit from an opportunistic investment landscape, with year-on-year investment in Saudi ventures witnessing a 65% increase. Any incoming fresh capital will go towards Uvera’s manufacturing, marketing, and hiring costs. The growing startup currently has 10 full-time people who work remotely from three countries.
“One of the good things to come out of COVID-19 is that we can hire and operate globally,” says the founder. “I see the business going regional and then global in the next four to five years.”