RALEIGH – After completing a fundraising round of nearly $5 million in September, SinnovaTek, Inc. is ready for growth, including pursuing an expansion of its facilities and manufacturing capabilities in Middlesex, NC, company leaders tell WRAL TechWire.

Its 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 intact.

The company, which spun out technology developed at North Carolina State University, initially sought to commercialize the technology it had licensed by selling equipment using the technology, said Michael Druga, president, in an interview.

“We’ve leveraged our technology to help solve problems,” said Druga.  “What our technology does is that it uses microwave energy.”

Think of it like this, Druga said.  When you have leftover pizza, and you’re seeking to reheat it, you’ve got two options available to you in your own kitchen, most likely.  You could heat the pizza in your oven, and it could take 20 minutes, or you could heat it in your microwave for 20 seconds.

And if you’re a food entrepreneur, you need to heat your food in order to deliver a shelf-stable food product that can be sold into grocery stores or other food supply lines.  Your food and ingredients need to reach a temperature of about 285 degrees Fahrenheit, said Druga, which means that you need a method for doing so during the manufacturing process.

Yet most existing food processing systems use steam heating technology, said Druga, which is more similar to heating one piece of leftover pizza in your oven.  And those systems require massive infrastructure and are often cost-prohibitive for entrepreneurs seeking to manufacture food products.

Instead, SinnovaTek’s technology uses microwave energy.  That allows the company to construct equipment that enables smaller batches of food manufacturing, more efficiently and has another intended result: the products may end up retaining more nutrients than if manufactured using other processes.

“Even industrially, it’s continuously flowing, energy passes through it, very quickly, so it doesn’t lose color or nutrients,” said Druga.

Whereas a steam system requires at least 4,000 pounds of ingredients, and several require more than 50,000 or 100,000 pounds of food, said Druga, SinnovaTek’s equipment and facility can work off of about 100 pounds of food.  “It leads to less waste,” noted Druga.

“There’s a ton of pent-up demand looking to bridge the gap,” said Druga, calling it “white space” in the food production market.

NC State spinoff SinnovaTek grows from university basement to booming food-tech business

Going to market during a pandemic

“You would think that launching during a pandemic would be not the best business move,” said Druga.

But, when you look at how consumer behavior changed, and how companies also altered their production capacity, there was a huge opportunity in the market, and SinnovaTek brought its technology and its manufacturing facility to market at a great time, said Druga.

“People started looking for shelf-stable products, and also starting to look for home delivery,” explained Druga, and that resulted in “explosive demand for shelf-stable food products and convenient food products.”

The company launched its manufacturing operations center and is now using that manufacturing center as a place to help emerging food-industry entrepreneurs, said Druga.

That’s an intentional choice, as that’s where the market opportunity is, explained Druga.  “Companies that always lead the way with innovation are smaller companies, they’re faster, they’re more nimble,” said Druga.  “We’re getting to see the front wave of innovation from all of these entrepreneurs trying to solve all of these issues.”

The company’s existing facility is under contract for nearly three years, said Druga, as a three-shift operation.  And they’re also seeing a different type of client seeking to use its facilities, he said.  “We’re seeing the larger companies coming to us, to test their new ideas,” said Druga, as they’re seeing the facility’s ability to produce smaller batches efficiently as a mechanism to reduce risk in bringing new products to market.

Now, it is expanding its operations capacity, noted Druga, including building another facility in Middlesex, North Carolina.

“We’re starting to see a food cluster here in the area,” said Druga.  “It’s something where we’re really trying to take all these local food companies and talk about how we can all work together.”

That’s an intentional choice, said Amanda Vargochik, Chief Innovation Officer.  “We look for gaps in the food market today,” said Vargochik.

“We’re really looking for underserved areas in the food processing world.”

The company’s facilities, and its products and technology, allow food entrepreneurs to conduct rapid prototyping, which the company believes will result in smaller brands being able to get to market.  As the company plans its growth, it also plans to hire, said Vargochik.

“That translates, normally, for customers, they have to contract for a million units per year with a copacker, but since we’re able to scale that down, we’re able to scale down the minimum order to something approaching 500 pouches,” said Vargochik.

“There are also a bunch of entrepreneurs who’ve had these ideas rattling around,” said Vargochik.  “And they’re ready to put their ideas into action.”

The company earned certification as a Benefit Corporation (B-Corp) in 2017, according to its website.