Some say one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Sarah Gross thinks she can prevent that with the right kind of filter.
"I always wondered why we didn't handle more produce," said Gross, senior consultant, Loup Logistics, a Union Pacific subsidiary. "It's because people think rail takes too long and fruits ripen too quickly."
Gross did some research and discovered the ripening process is triggered by ethylene gas. Ethylene is a plant hormone that degrades plant cells, causing fruits to ripen.
Created by NASA as a means to grow fruits in space, ethylene filters arrived on earth in 2004. The filters have been successfully used for several years by produce growers, flower companies and the Navy.
"I knew if this worked to keep produce fresh for 45 days in an ocean container, it could work for rail," she said.
Curious about implementing the filters in refrigerated rail cars, Gross began cold calling ethylene filter manufacturers to learn more. She submitted the concept as part of Union Pacific’s Marketing and Sales Department’s internal Shark Tank idea contest. Her project was one of eight ideas selected out of 80.
The Shark Tank panel, made up of Marketing and Sales executives, asked the obvious question: Why has no one tried this before?
"I think no one ever thought to transport produce by rail because a truck can go coast-to-coast in four or five days," Gross said. "It's not a problem for the apple growers; they have a tried-and-true shipping method. But it is a problem for the rail industry, because it's business we're missing out on."
The sharks bit, and Gross received $10,000 to test her idea.
"We tested on apples because apples are high ethylene producers and Cold Connect was already moving them," Gross said.
Cold Connect is a new Union Pacific service for food and beverage shippers who require refrigerated storage and transportation. Gross discovered that the Cold Connect facility in Wallula, Washington, was using ethylene absorption tubes to test the effectiveness of ethylene filters inside their refrigerated railcars.
The tubes collected almost 11 liters of the gas, about 17 percent of the total ethylene produced in each car. "I didn't know how this test was important, or what the data portrayed," she said. "I had more research to do."
After hearing Union Pacific Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Beth Whited speak about Gross' project at a conference, Union Pacific Industrial Products Intern McKenna Hawkins put Gross in touch with Troy Hawkins, owner of Sundance Slope apple farm near Wenatchee, Washington. That's when it all came together.
"Troy said pressure and starch are the two most important tests in the apple industry,'' Gross said.
Hawkins let Gross conduct tests on organic gala apples. The apples were starch and pressure tested before being shipped in three different conditions: in a truck without an ethylene filter, in a rail car without an ethylene filter and in a rail car with an ethylene filter. At the end of their journey, a New York lab confirmed Gross' suspicions: The apples in the ethylene-controlled rail car were less ripe upon arrival.
"We can't say that ethylene control reverted the ripening process, but we can say that based on our test results, transporting apples in a rail car with ethylene control would potentially give grocery stores an extra 12 days on the shelf," Gross said.
Eventually Gross hopes to transition some of Hawkins' apple bin business to the railroad to facilitate further testing.
She said none of this would have happened without Shark Tank.
"Our leadership team needs to keep hosting Shark Tanks," she said. "It gives worker bees who see everything and who work directly with customers a safe space to present our ideas.”