Meet the Inventor of a Silicone Kitchen Mat That Saves Money — And the Environment
A “secret sauce” of minerals embedded in the mat keeps produce-spoiling bacteria at bay, tackling the issue of household food waste.
“I’m totally a tree-hugger at heart.” That’s how inventor and entrepreneur Dagan Kay describes himself. His description hints at the entire ethos behind his Portland, Oregon-based company, Produce Mate.
The former philosophy major developed the idea for Produce Mate four years ago with his father and a family friend. Since then, the team has expanded from three to seven people who are committed to a singular, environmentally driven effort: reduce food waste.
The EPA estimates that Americans waste more than 200 pounds of food per person, per year. Forty percent of food in the U.S. ends up in a landfill, costing money and contributing to a cycle of waste that contributes to climate change. Produce Mate delays food spoilage via an innovative kitchen mat that inhibits the growth of bacteria. The mat is designed to extend the shelf life of produce, and can help the average family save $300-worth of wasted fruits and vegetables per year — a decent dent in the $1,500 — $1,800 currently being wasted each year at the household level. It even has applications for larger-scale food storage and transport.
Produce Mate won the top prize at the collegiate competition Invent Oregon in 2018, and after a successful Kickstarter campaign just two years later, it’s now commercially available through Produce Mate’s website and efforts toward FDA, EPA and BPR (EU) approval are underway.
We spoke with Kay about his invention, his values and his vision for a healthier, less wasteful world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your invention. How does it work?
Our invention is an antimicrobial silicone kitchen mat that extends the life of your fruits and vegetables. We grind up all natural, antimicrobial minerals into a really fine powder and then mix them right into the mat. The mat sits in your fridge or on the countertop and fights bacteria on all the surfaces it’s touching. So essentially you get a cleaner fridge, less chance of moldy fruits and vegetables, and less damage from microorganisms. We’re the only antimicrobial approach to food waste reduction at home.
What drew you to this idea of fighting bacteria in fruit and vegetables? Do you have a background in food or chemistry?
No. I suppose my background is in entrepreneurship. But I love food. I love eating. I’ve been lucky to travel and eat food from all over the world. And in my junior year at the University of Portland, I joined a program called the Entrepreneurship Scholars, which is like a year-long business accelerator. Produce Mate actually started there. It started as this combo of a class project and a business idea. I was focused on food and I was learning a lot about climate change at the time. The second I started to dig into food waste, this whole world in my brain exploded open.
Why food waste?
I mean, I’m totally a tree hugger at heart. I spend a lot of time outside and I try to cut down on my [carbon] footprint. I think at the core of Produce Mate, what started the whole thing was being sick of feeling scared of climate change and being sick and tired of food waste. And both of these things are intimately related. I wanted to give people the easiest way possible to just do a little bit better and along the way, we realized this is really massive. This is not only helping people waste less food, but waste less food to the tune of three or four hundred dollars every single year.
Give us a sense of the scale and scope of how much food is wasted at the household level right now?
The big statistic that we focus on is that the average family spends between $1500 and $1800 on wasted food every single year. That number increases if you tend to shop organic, or at higher-end grocery stores. At the end of the day we’re not only wasting the chance to eat something delicious, but we waste all of the resources that went into making that food.
I don’t think there’s a single food waste answer. We need to tackle this from as many angles as possible and empower people to love the food they eat.
Could Produce Mate be used elsewhere along the supply chain or for large-scale food transport?
Our technology could easily be adapted to numerous other applications. For instance, imagine spraying a thin lacquer or plant-based paint infused with our bacteria-fighting minerals on the walls of cargo containers that ship bananas, or in the bed of a refrigerated truck that delivers leafy greens 2,000-plus miles from the West Coast to the Midwest. Our technology used this way, and indeed, the entire food waste innovation landscape, could have major implications on food equity around the globe in our lifetime. The ability to deliver more high-quality fresh food further than ever before could have a huge impact in places affected by food scarcity and malnourishment.
How has Produce Mate grown and changed over the years?
At the very beginning there were just three of us: David, John, and me. David is my dad. I’m super lucky to be in a family business; it’s cool to work so closely with people who I care about so much. John and my dad have been friends since high school, so we have a really intimate leadership team. Now there are seven of us all together, chipping away at Produce Mate every day, but I’m still really the only full-time employee.
I try to be fluid and I try to fail really fast. We’re mission-driven and we’re focused on doing as well as we can. Of course, as a startup, we’re learning and growing and getting better at doing that all the time.
How did sustainability factor into the manufacturing of your product?
There is a massive toll on the environment when you have to ship something across an ocean, and we make our mats overseas, there’s no way around saying that. But we’re doing as well as we can right now. Take the materials: Silicone is a plastic, but it’s really efficient and efficiency is good for the environment, at least in this case. In the future, it’d be fun to make something out of hemp or maybe bamboo, but silicone is inert — we know it’s not going to leach any of its dye or any of our minerals. And because of its efficiency and size, we can ship and pack it pretty well. I can confidently say that our product is carbon neutral. If you use a Produce Mate in your home for two years and it helps you save roughly 40 pounds of fruits and vegetables, it will have paid for itself monetarily, and environmentally.
Can you talk more about the life cycle of a mat? What happens when it can’t be used anymore?
Our oldest prototypes are 2.5 years old and are still going strong. Because they’re made of silicone, our mats aren’t strictly biodegradable, but they can be repurposed when the time comes. We plan to eventually implement a send-back recycling program, and I imagine we’ll cut any spent mats into bracelets for concerts, or that we’ll grind them up into small, irregular pieces for art projects or as packaging cushion or even for further manufacturing usage.
In my dream world, not a single mat would end up in a landfill, but if they do, we know they’ll be safe and not dangerous as they break apart over time. Why work so hard to save produce if your product is just going to take its place in the landfill and leach toxic chemicals into the earth?
Can you talk about some of the programs and support that helped you succeed as an entrepreneur?
I believe Produce Mate is still here because of Invent Oregon. After Entrepreneurship Scholars, I competed in a few Oregon competitions and did pretty well and raised enough money to help us continue. Invent Oregon was by far the biggest and the most impactful of those because they provide grant money at the beginning — that helped us buy the molds that we’re still using today to make our mats. I can’t even describe the amount of gratitude I have. The people there are so hardworking and passionate and meeting them was so, so cool. And then to have won, it was the difference between being here and not. So I can firmly say it changed my life and it’s an amazing, amazing program.
And your Kickstarter campaign?
Once I felt that we were to a point where our product was working and we’d tested it and were ready to take the next step, there was this question, “How are we going to get funds? Where are the resources that can make Produce Mate exist?” Because I’m so focused on the brand and on what the potential impact is, I thought it would be perfect to go to Kickstarter. So we ran a month-long campaign and raised 140% of our goal, which sounds really fancy. We needed about $15,000 to make a first production run of mats. And we raised about $20,000. So that was really exciting. I’m so fortunate for the 360-odd people who supported us — if you’re reading, thank you so much.
Have you always seen yourself as an inventor? What advice would you give to other aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs?
I feel like I have somewhat of a weird identity. I grew up in Europe and moved around for 13 years of my life. I think I did not expect to be any sort of inventor. I thought maybe entrepreneurship made a lot of sense. I think that there is no right way to be entrepreneurial. What I have found for me that has worked is I always show up and I always listen to people’s advice. But I don’t take any of that directly into my soul. Perseverance is more than key. So I would say just keep going.
Would you care to share any challenges you’ve experienced along the way?
COVID has been super hard, honestly. It has caused delays and I’ve felt this pang of accountability and this worry about something that was outside my control. I felt personally challenged by the question of, “What do I owe to my Kickstarter backers and how much unpredictability are they willing to go through with me?” Besides that, just learning to be a leader and learning how to clearly explain what needs to get done. And to build trust and a culture between the people who are working alongside me.
What impact do you hope to have? Do you have a vision for the next five or 10 years?
Yes. Our goal is to save five million pounds of food in five years. That’s if families use a Produce Mate to save $300 and 50 pounds of food a year. I think it’s an extremely doable goal and it will have roughly the same impact as removing hundreds of cars or planting roughly 30,000 trees or 5,000 people converting to an all-plant diet. And we’re part of 1% for the Planet, so we’re committed to allocating at least 1% of gross sales to environmental nonprofits.
I want Produce Mate to be a thought leader in the space where food waste and climate change overlap. I want to put out exciting, fun, clean, colorful, beautiful things in the world, because climate change is terrifying and there’s a lot of pessimistic news about it. I would like to be a shining light of hope in a space that can feel overwhelming.