James Rogers ( File photo )

The route that James Rogers took to the produce industry is as unconventional as anyone.

Rogers, founder and CEO of Apeel Sciences, Goleta, Calif., came in contact with fruits and vegetables through a big idea — cutting food waste.

Rogers received dual undergraduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University in materials science & engineering and biomedical engineering, and a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of California Santa Barbara. While working on his PhD, Rogers developed an energy-harvesting solar paint.

Rogers borrowed principles from his previous research when stumbling on his big idea.

As Apeel’s website recounts the origin story, Rogers was driving through lush farmland on his way home to Santa Barbara from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab when he heard a story on the radio about global hunger.

Rogers wondered how can so many people be hungry if we’re able to grow such an abundance of food?

Finding out that spoilage contributes hugely to food waste — and inspired by nature’s strategy for preservation — Rogers set his future path.

Apeel Sciences was founded in 2012 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rogers and his team at Apeel promptly went to work building a barrier out of edible plant materials that would slow down the rate of spoilage.

The product is delivered as a powder to the location of the produce — a packinghouse, for example — then reconstituted as a liquid before being applied with a spray bar or via other methods to the vegetables or fruit, which are then dried with an air knife.

Since 2012, Apeel Sciences has attracted tens of millions more in financing from investors.

Today, Apeel Sciences has developed products for dozens of U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Certified and conventional produce categories, working with both big and small growers in the U.S. and around the world. The commercial rollout of Apeel’s technology has begun in earnest.

In September, Apeel avocados were launched in 109 stores in the Cincinnati market. Costco and Harps Food Stores have also been sourcing fruit treated by Apeel, which provides extended shelf life with a post-harvest solution it developed. Citrus, berries, stone fruit and asparagus are other commodities targeted by Apeel.

Managing an expanding staff at Apeel, Rogers said he hires bright people and gives them space to succeed.

“We don’t expect everything to work perfectly the first time, but we trust our employees to push themselves and grow,” he said.

Jason Spievak, an Apeel board member who has worked with Rogers for many years, lauded not only his scientific prowess, but also his ability to connect with people.

“James Rogers is a unique balance of leading by competence and also leading by charisma,” Spievak said. “He is both highly respected for his intellect and admired for his ability to inspire a team to follow his vision.”

"He is quick with a disarming laugh and vulnerable enough to truly engage at a human level with both heads of state and captains of industry as well as Kenyan mango farmers and grocery clerks."