Khai-nam, a fast-growing aquatic vegetable little known in the Western world, has a nutritional profile that’s hard to beat – comparable to combining kale, broccoli and spinach. Israeli research biologist Tsipi Shoham tried this mild-tasting Asian super-food on her family, leading to the creation of a startup company.
GreenOnyx plans to offer a unique home system — sort of a 3D printer for food — to grow and process the caviar-like Khai-nam for smoothies, soups, stews and salads.
The company has won US Food and Drug Administration approval, and is forging collaborations with market leaders in the United States and Europe. Following another year of development, the patented countertop machine is expected to be available for sale.
“This is a real high-tech system integrated with agriculture in a way nobody has done before,” says Tsipi’s husband, CEO Benny Shoham, a Technion-trained electronic engineer who has served as chief executive, vice president of business development and product director for several Fortune 500 and startup companies.
In October, GreenOnyx was chosen as one of 10 promising startups to present an elevator pitch to potential investors at the 12th annual Go4Israel annual business conference sponsored by Cukierman Investment House and Catalyst Funds.
Produce to protect from disease
Shoham explains that his wife, who has a PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science and did postdoctoral research at Stanford University, began seeking exceptionally nutritious fresh produce for the family’s table about three years ago.
“We have two girls and wanted to help protect them from chronic disease. Based on her research into algae and cancer, she understands that preventive steps like proper diet are most important, and that’s why so many people are turning vegan and vegetarian,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“After screening many types of bio-sources, we came across Khai-nam. In 1970, Nature had an article about it. So it’s not a secret vegetable – it existed for hundreds of years in Indochina — but it is complicated to grow and is only consumed in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos these days. We wanted to find a way to develop it.”
Their at-home experiments with the vegetable – also called wolffia or watermeal — proved successful, and friends were eager to learn more. The Shohams knew that the average busy person could not eat Khai-nam regularly unless it was extremely convenient to buy and prepare.
“At some point we reached out to Ron Guttmann, who used to be the CEO of Unilever Israel, and he invested immediately and joined us as our third partner in early 2013,” says Shoham.
GreenOnyx, based in Tel Aviv, has a team of 10 employees with expertise in optics, algorithms, software and physics. The scientific advisory team includes professors form Ben-Gurion (Beersheva) and Rutgers (New Jersey) universities, as well as international food safety and regulatory expert Catherine Adams Hutt.
An urban farm
The Shohams have sourced several “champion strains” of Khai-nam, all compliant with FDA regulations. The antioxidant-rich vegetable, whose name means “water eggs” in Thai, is said to be the world’s smallest flowering plant and is high in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
“All the system needs is a connection to tap water and electricity,” says Shoham. “As long as you continue replacing the capsule pack we send you once a month, the system will run automatically and provide a daily source of fresh produce.”
The user can choose the desired form of Khai-nam: fresh for salads; liquefied for juice; or a paste to use in soups, casseroles, pasta sauce and other cooked foods.
“Think of it as vegetable base you can integrate into any dish,” says Shoham. “Depending on the strain, it has a very neutral, fresh taste like sweet cabbage, and no smell.”
GreenOnyx will be available in smaller home and larger restaurant versions. “You can even build urban farms with many of these systems,” says Shoham.
With regular use, the system could cut the family’s bill for fresh, ready-to-eat organic vegetables by a third, claims Shoham. “In Europe, in some seasons the price of imported fresh vegetables is very high. The price of GreenOnyx is fixed year-round.”
Depending on each individual market, the machines may be possible to buy or lease, but in either case the capsules would be supplied exclusively by GreenOnyx.
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