It all started in the basement of Schaub Hall.
That’s how SinnovaTek President and CEO Michael Druga describes the humble beginning of this North Carolina State University spin-off. The Raleigh-based company, launched in 2016, uses patented thermal food processing technology to produce shelf-stable products that don’t need refrigeration until their packages are opened.
The key to SinnovaTek’s success is microwaves, the type of proprietary system developed at NC State’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences in the lower level labs of Schaub Hall. The technology sterilizes non-solid foods– soups, sauces, purees and thicker-consistency products like mashed potatoes and hummus – while keeping their flavor, texture and nutrient content in tact.
That isn’t an easy thing to do. More-traditional food sterilization systems like tube-and-tube heat exchangers cook products much longer to reach sterilization temperatures, Druga said. That removes taste and nutrients and can require extra salt or other seasonings for flavor. They also have a tendency to over-cook thicker liquids, if they can handle them at all.
SinnovaTek’s microwave system reaches critical temperature much faster, in 20 to 40 seconds rather than the 45 minutes required by some processors. That results in better flavor, color, texture and nutrient retention without preservatives said Druga. Product shelf life can be a year or more.
Sterilizing denser products isn’t a problem either. The equipment is designed to process a wide range of viscosities at various speeds. It can be applied equally as well to refrigerated products that require pasteurization at a lower temperature.
SinnovaTek team and technology closely linked to NC State
The microwave technology was developed and patented at NC State and licensed by SinnovaTek co-founders Druga; company Vice President of Innovation Amanda Vargochik; and Chief Science Officer Josip Simunovic, Ph.D. Both Vargochik and Simunovic are graduates of the Food Science Program at State, where Simunovic is a research professor. A majority of the company’s nine employees also attended the university.
SinnovaTek incorporates the microwave technology into processing equipment that it builds and sells to food manufacturers. The company also works with businesses to help them formulate and develop related new products.
To respond to growing demand for smaller production runs, SinnovaTek has downsized its microwave systems to accommodate reduced batch sizes, Druga said. Its Nomatic small-scale commercial unit has all the capabilities of large-scale processors.
And the company is adding a new manufacturing facility called FirstWave in Raleigh to accommodate companies that are test marketing or introducing new food products. The facility will open in the summer of 2020 and add up to 20 new jobs over the next two years.
“For someone with a new brand or idea for a new product, it’s very difficult to meet the one million unit production requirement of co-packers,” Druga pointed out. “We’re not going to have a minimum. We can turn out 1,000 or 10,000 units, which allows an entrepreneur to get a product started before making a larger commitment. We’re trying to bridge that gap.”
SinnovaTek collaborates with NC State and NCFIL to serve customers
Sinnovatek also is working closely with NC State and the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab (NCFIL) in Kannapolis to help entrepreneurs get new products on store shelves. NCFIL, which is closely affiliated with NC State, is the nation’s only facility equipped and dedicated to supporting the plant-based food innovators of tomorrow.
“Our vision of the world for the next year or two is a giant synergy between NC State’s main campus, the Food Innovation Lab and FirstWave,” Druga explained. “We want to help customers navigate the various levels of research and technology evaluation all the way to product commercialization.”
The company recently joined forces with NCFIL and another North Carolina firm – bulk ingredient manufacturer, Yamco – on just this type of collaboration. They investigated the commercial feasibility of purple carrots as a signature cash crop in North Carolina – with positive results.
“We were able to show that it’s a viable product, Druga said. “The quality and color were fantastic and nutrient retention was incredible. Now the goal is to find out how to grow purple carrots on a commercial scale.”
B Corp certification supports company’s mission
One of SinnovaTek’s early goals as an emerging food technology company was to qualify as a global B Corp. That was accomplished in 2017.
The certification requires member businesses to weigh the impact of their decisions on employees, customers, suppliers, the community and the environment. Public transparency and legal accountability also are important. The purpose is to encourage companies to be a force for good.
“It guides how we run SinnovaTek and treat our employees and customers,” said VP of Innovation Vargochik. “And it reinforces our mission to reduce food waste while we also focus on retaining nutrients in products. So this is an important step for us.”