By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
If you’ve ever used a slider to reseal a plastic food storage bag, you can thank Toby Thomas.
Thomas worked on the team that developed this innovation in food storage. The mechanical engineer with 33 years of experience in the packaging industry and 46 food packaging patents pending, has spent his career creating new ways to keep food fresh and safe.
At a time when many of his contemporaries are ending their careers, Thomas produced the most impactful food packaging innovation of his career. It is an idea so big that he, and co-developer Bill Belias, decided to launch their own company and take the product to the market themselves.
Belias and Thomas set out to create safe, natural packaging that prevents mold from forming on food. The pair had been working on the idea since 2004. They had many false starts, including one version of the product that left the food free of mold, but infused with the mustardy heat of wasabi. Yet, each version of the product got them closer to their goal of making packaging that kept food fresh for a longer period of time.
After years of trial and error, the pair developed packaging so effective that it extended the life of preservative-free bread from four to six days to 16-21 days before mold formed on the loaf. The active ingredient is an FDA approved food ingredient. Thomas states the U.S. made packaging’s mold inhibitor is found in nature and does not impact the taste, texture, or appearance of the food.
The collaborators succeeded in developing a product that worked to decrease food waste while reducing distribution costs, all while delighting the end consumer. They were ready to put their groundbreaking packaging to the market.
SoFresh launched in 2018 and was ready to hit the marketplace in March 2020. The pandemic changed those plans. As a brand-new company without cashflow, the timing could not have been worse. Yet, SoFresh persevered. “We used that time well,” Thomas said. “We improved our product while we were in the penalty box, so to speak.”
The time on the sidelines gave the company an unexpected pivot. “Our whole supply chain just crashed overnight”, Thomas said. “Instead of using contract manufacturers, we had to buy used equipment, install it, and then start our process development internally, as opposed to doing it at contract manufacturer.”
“In the downtime we spent $50,000 on a used piece of equipment. We brought it in and modified it according to our patented technology and we started producing prototype samples on this line. We kept improving the product, finding out the issues, resolving the issues until we were able to launch.”
The company began producing product for customers in October 2021. The bakery industry was the first to use the pioneering packaging. Today, customers in Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania can purchase bread wrapped in SoFresh packaging, and their list of clients is expanding rapidly. The company focusing its reach into the cheese and berries markets since these foods experience the greatest incidents of loss due to waste.
SoFresh has been successful in raising capital. The company raised a pre-seed round of $1.3 million in 2018 with the help of San Francisco-based investors, and a win in a Bright Star Wisconsin pitch contest. In 2020, the company won $500,000 in a New York based competition that required them to open an office in the state. “It is perfect because you don’t want to ship product halfway across the United States,” Thomas said. “At the New York location, you do the Eastern Seaboard. We can do the Midwest (from Kenosha) and then we’ll probably end up having something out West at some point in time.”
Right now, the company is preparing to begin a Series A funding round to support their scaling efforts. “We need bigger operations. We need more people. We need back of house order entry and more on the operation side of things, “Thomas said. “Then we’re going to beef up our sales team.”
Despite the ambitious growth plans, SoFresh plans to keep its headquarters located in Wisconsin.
“Startups are for kids, I gotta tell you,” Thomas said with a laugh. “But the older you are, the more wisdom you have, the more experience you have. You probably make better decisions. And when you’re young, you have energy, and you bounce. And I don’t bounce as much as I used to, but I’m having a fantastic time. It’s great!”
To learn more about SoFresh packaging and watch their time-lapse videos of their food preservation efforts, click here.