Up to 40 percent of crops grown in the United States never make it to market, but two North Carolina entrepreneurs are finding ways to create healthy foods out of what would otherwise be wasted.
In August 2017, NC State Poole College of Management alumni Laura Hearn and Will Kornegay – who are sister and brother – started Glean with one product: a sweet potato flour. Now they have several products for sale in 1,200 retail stores across the Southeast.
Their newest products — fruit gummies rich in protein — have roots in the research of two College of Agriculture and Life Sciences scientists: Mary Ann Lila, director of NC State’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis, and Josip Simunovic, a research professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, plus his colleagues in the NC State spinoff company SinnovaTek.
Taken together, their breakthroughs make it possible for food manufacturers to quickly extract nutrients from fruits and vegetables and add them to a protein source.
Earlier this year, Glean received the American Farm Bureau Federation’s People’s Choice award in its 2019 Ag Innovations Challenge. The challenge is designed to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs and showcase business innovations being developed in rural parts of the country.
How has NC State played into your success?
CALS is the lifeblood of the industry and central to the network of people involved in agriculture.
We graduated from the business college and then fell into agriculture. … We learned a great deal through hands-on courses in the college of business and have really fallen in love with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, too. The agricultural industry is the No. 1 industry in our state, and CALS is the lifeblood of the industry and central to the network of people involved in agriculture. It’s the No. 1 college in the state for pumping out all these people who are trying to enhance agriculture and what it means to our state and our economy.
How did you end up in agriculture?
I started out in the engineering world, and … [then] I worked as the director of marketing for Nash Produce, one of the largest sweet potato suppliers in the world. I was there for almost 10 years and fell in love with the industry and the people and being able to develop relationships with anyone from farmers to Extension agents to researchers who are doing amazing things to feed the world.
I also dragged my brother into it. He was working for Ham Produce, my biggest competitor.
What spurred you to create Glean?
We saw by working with farmers the amount of waste they incur from harvest all the way through to the grocery stores. Up to 40 of their crops aren’t marketable on the retail shelf just because of odd shape or size.
At the same time, Will suffers from a severe food allergy from a tick bite. He has anaphylactic reactions to certain foods and started to see that it’s hard to find food products that are transparently labeled.
Seeing the waste issue, understanding the rise in food allergies and the demand for knowing what’s in your foods, we started to connect these dots and saw that we could … create clean-label products. We started out with what we know best, which is sweet potatoes, our state vegetable. We made sweet potato flour by taking oddly shaped sweet potatoes that would otherwise be wasted. We dehydrate them and then mill them into a flour. Then we did it with pumpkin and beet and then cauliflower.
What stage are you at with the business?
We’ve been able to slowly start launching into grocery retail chains. Most recently, we launched all-natural pet treats that are also allergen-free and good for dogs with sensitive stomachs. We started making sweet potato chews out of dehydrated sweet potatoes.
Earlier this year we launched our protein gummies, which is the most exciting project I’ve worked on to date. It’s an innovative technology that allows us to extrude the nutrients and polyphenols from fruits and vegetables and bind them with proteins. It’s the first-ever fruit and vegetable protein gummy that is a complete protein, that tastes good and has 25 grams of protein per bag. … All the ingredients are clearly listed and they’re simple words that you know. … It aligns with our mission of Glean, which is using these fruits and vegetables that farmers wouldn’t typically be able to make a profit with.
We have a full-circle mission where for every pound of product we sell we donate a pound to help fight hunger. We do that by working directly with the food bank of central and eastern North Carolina. We’ve been able to donate over 40,000 pounds of food to people in need since we started. We’ve also been able to procure 50,000 pounds of produce that farmers would’ve had to leave in the fields.
We have a long way to go for people to recognize our brand and understand what Glean is. Our hope is for people to be able to walk into any grocery store and see one of our lines of products and know that we’ve been able to impact farmers – but that’s not the end of the story: It’s then going to feed someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. Our hope is to be in 1,200 more stores.
How has NC State helped you pursue this market?
Nearly every touch point that we have with people can be traced back to NC State, whether it’s the farmers we work with who are getting their seed stock from NC State or who are growing the Covington sweet potato developed at NC State.
We grow local economies, opportunities, solutions and talent.