Design Stories: Putting out-of-the-box thinking into a box

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Gaylon White

The first sign that FreshRealm is a different kind of company is its name: two words joined as one with the first letter of the second word capitalized. Another hint: its website domain is a "" instead of a ""

The real ah-ha moment is the home page of the FreshRealm website. There you'll see an image of a cool-looking box, a headline about the world changing and humans evolving, and this message: "The next revolution of commerce and interaction is all about connectivity. FreshRealm was formed to help usher in this new era. Welcome to the .co era of cooperation, collaboration and co-creation."

Confused? Continue.

"The reason we're is that we really want the 'co' to stand for a new era of the Internet, a new era of the country," says Michael Lippold, the 35-year-old CEO of the Ventura, Calif., start-up. "And that new era is not all about personal interests, fast cars and big houses. Instead it's an era of being connected, collaborating and cooperating to build the world together in a better way."

That's where the cool box on the home page comes in. It's called the FreshRealm Vessel and Lippold is counting on the out-of-the-box thinking that went into it to bring fresh food to the doorsteps of millions of homes and offices across the United States.

FreshRealm rolled out the Vessel in January with selected customers in Northern California. By mid-year, FreshRealm expects to be shipping throughout California.

"From there, we'll expand nationally," Lippold says.

The vessel was designed by RKS Design, the same folks who brought us the KOR One hydration vessel that Tony Stark, also known as Robert Downey Jr., used to sustain his superpowers in the movie "Iron Man 2."

The FreshRealm Vessel has the potential of being its own superpower, according to Ravi Sawhney, president of RKS. "It's revolutionary because it will disrupt how we receive fresh groceries. You're changing the distribution model. Food is not going to be shipped to sit on a dock and, then, the back of a grocery store to wait to be put out on the shelves. It's going straight from the grower to the consumer. This means ultimately that we all get a healthier, better product for the same price with great convenience like we've never had before. How do you beat that offering?"

"Forty percent of the food we make in the United States ends up in a landfill — a big part because we can't distribute it fast enough," says Lippold. "That's ridiculous. We can do so much better than that."

That's what Lippold was thinking after touring a Calavo Growers plant for the umpteenth time. Calavo is a major producer of fresh foods, operating out of six regional facilities across the country.

"What they are able to do in a really powerful way is make high quality fresh food — no preservatives, all natural, everything that you would want to eat for yourself and your family," he said.

As he came to the end of one tour, Lippold was particularly bothered to see "everything that's fresh and lean about the plant go out the window as soon as it starts going down the path of the way we distribute food."

FreshRealm is majority backed by Calavo and "connected with some really massive businesses" in its crusade to build a platform that shrinks down to a single day a distribution system that now takes seven to nine days.

"The food industry is in desperate need for innovation," Lippold says. "There's a lot of money being spent on food and technology and to me that's a sign that consumers are ready for something different. They're ready for some Amazon of food. And the pieces we've put together have the recipe for something special like this."

The centerpiece is the Vessel, a 17.3-inch cube that, empty, weighs approximately 17.5 pounds. The exterior is corrugated polypropylene. Inside, polyurethane foam is used for insulation and ABS for the enclosure and five translucent drawers. Each drawer has a stamped aluminum plate to evenly distribute the cold throughout the Vessel.

"We had a lot of constraints," Lippold admits.

One is the FedEx and United Parcel Service size restrictions for low-cost shipping.

"We're under by just an eighth of an inch," says Sawhney.

The biggest constraint of all was keeping the temperature range inside between 35-40° F for 30 hours.

"We had the attitude that we've figured out a way to put a man on the moon," says Lippold. "We have to figure out a way to ship fresh food in a box."

No dry ice, toxic gels or electronics could be used. Food in one corner of the Vessel has to be just as cold as in another.

"Originally, we were going to have enough space between all of the storage containers that we could get some convection going on with the heat and cold exchanging to even out the temperature," Sawhney explains. "By the time we got it all packed up, there was not enough air movement."

That's when the aluminum plate was added to the drawer design. "It was a last-minute kind of Hail Mary" Sawhney says. "It radiates the cold across the whole surface so it conducts the temperature."

The Vessel also had to look cool. "It needed to have the wow factor," Lippold says.

The transparent green ABS drawers create "a huge emotional connection" and help beautify the food, Sawhney says. "It's all about food beautification. It doesn't matter how noble your motivation is, if you can't make the food look fantastic, fresh and appetizing, it's all lost."

Side rails allow modular drawers to be configured specifically for each shipment.

A bar code on top of the Vessel and others on the side of the drawers link to the FreshRealm Cloud. This electronically tracks the food to a home or a "co-drop" location — offices, schools, any place where there's a group of people. "A co-drop allows people in an office to order together," Lippold says. "When the Vessel is delivered, you'll get a text message saying that your fresh dinner just arrived in Vessel 123 and it's in drawer four."

Food containers fit snugly into the drawers in case FedEx delivers the Vessel upside down. When opened, the doors magnetize to the side of the Vessel to provide easy access to the food and create a clean experience.

The Vessel can be used again and again like milk bottles of yesteryear. FedEx will deliver and pick up the Vessel and, then, return it to FreshRealm for cleaning and sterilization. The original goal was 20 uses but Lippold now believes that can be at least doubled.

"We want the Vessel to be a symbol of reusability, less waste, and thinking differently," Lippold said.

This is where the FreshRealm Cloud re-enters the pictures. A massive technology system, it will connect food merchants using the Vessels to a national fresh food ecosystem.

"Think of FreshRealm as more like the engine — Intel inside," Lippold says.

These merchants will sell food directly to consumers. "They might be a wellness or diet company, a school lunch program or doctors prescribing specific meals. The opportunities are endless."

Another example of how FreshRealm thinks differently are the "Gratitude Circle" meetings held every Friday so team members can share what they are grateful for personally and professionally.

Lippold is particularly grateful he called RKS after a national search for a design firm left him feeling "there's got to be somebody else."

RKS is located in Thousand Oaks, 40 minutes from FreshRealm's office. "For whatever reason, we had missed contacting RKS," Lippold says.

He knows the exact time the call went out to RKS — 11 a.m. "Three hours later the stars were all aligned. We met and it was instant connection. They got what we were trying to do."

"I thought it was great," says Sawhney. "You can change the world with this kind of product."

And that's what the FreshRealm is all about — co-creating a better world by using Vessels of fresh food to get people to eat, think and act differently.

White is a writer, storyteller and communications consultant.