Kavita Shukla had just finished high school and was already on her way to a prolific career in science and invention, with two patents and a company of her own to her credit.
Shukla was born in Germany to Indian parents who moved to the United States when she was a young child. The Harvard University graduate attended high school in Ellicott City, Maryland. At the age of 13, she created a lab safety device for bottles containing hazardous materials. She patented the device, dubbing it the “Smart Lid.”
Around that time, she also became interested in the potential uses of an Indian herb called fenugreek in preserving food and fighting bacterial growth. While visiting her grandparents during a trip to India at age 12, Shukla accidentally drank contaminated water. Her grandmother whipped up a homemade concoction containing ground fenugreek seeds and gave it to her to consume, saying, “Take this and you’ll be fine.” Shukla was skeptical, but she took the powder and did not become ill.
When she returned home to the United States, Shukla began conducting her own experiments with fenugreek, exploring its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Through her research, she found that fenugreek could not only remove toxic substances from aqueous solutions but could also inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. She wondered if this discovery could be applied to food preservation, and had an idea to develop a packaging paper using fenugreek that might better preserve and protect items from bacteria and fungi.
Shukla was onto something: she observed that food wrapped in fenugreek-treated paper lasts four to six weeks longer than food protected by traditional wrapping. It is also natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and easily produced in large quantities, making it ideal for developing countries and developed nations alike.
She obtained a patent for her fenugreek-treated paper in the spring of 2002.
Also in 2002, Shukla was the winner of the Lemelson-MIT Invention Apprenticeship. She worked with her Invention Mentor David Payton, Principal Research Scientist in the Information Sciences Lab at HRL Laboratories for two weeks. Their project was related to the development of software for controlling hundreds of tiny robots with the goal of making them work collectively. The robots could then accomplish tasks such as search and rescue.
In addition to her academic and scientific prowess, Shukla is an accomplished violinist and dancer, and an entrepreneurial talent. She was co-founder and CEO of SAFEH2O, a non-profit, student-run water testing company that operates in partnership with Columbia, Maryland-based W.R. Grace. SAFEH2O had tested more than 450 residential water samples in the Baltimore area and alerted residents about problems, such as excessive lead or other impurities. Shukla had overseen virtually all aspects of the project, from marketing and finance to research and management duties.
Shukla founded Fenugreen in 2010 to market her FreshPaper invention to Farmer’s markets and street fairs in Cambridge, Mass. Today, Fenugreen FreshPaper is a social enterprise and used by farmers and families around the globe. FreshPaper is sold online and in major retail and grocery markets. Shukla has received a number of national and international awards for her inventions. Her work has been featured in CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Oprah Magazine, Glamour and the Today Show. Fast Company featured Shukla as one of the “7 Entrepreneurs Changing the World” and she made the Forbes “30 under 30” list in 2014.