SAN MARCOS, TX — It started as a way to create better plastic packaging, and now plastic has been completely cut out of the process.
Nabaco’s NatuWrap, a colorless, flavorless, edible coating for fresh produce, is made from commonly-consumed food products in including tree extracts and bentonite clays that are also found in things like candy and nutritional supplements.
What makes the coating unique is the way the self-assembling nanoparticles wrap produce in a protective coating. NatuWrap has been shown to increase shelf life of grapes, bananas and cherries, and pears more than two weeks, avocados more than 10 days, with tests ongoing for other fruit like soft melons and strawberries.
And the coating can be applied at any stage of the supply chain, from pre-harvest through retail, through simple spray application technologies already in the marketplace, says Kevin Frye, vice president of sales.
“The ability to do applications in the field, or even pre-harvest, facilitates the application process and simplifies it,” he says. “It also maximizes the benefit because the closer to harvest that you can start preserving, the better.”
Nabaco has worked to find a product and application method that can be used in many different environments with varying degrees of complexity of supply chain. The company just shipped its first orders to a customer in Ghana, where it will be used for plantains, Frye says.
“A long-term goal of ours is to help eliminate food waste in general, but also help secure the food supply chain in underdeveloped countries,” he says. “It turns out that what we’re doing is so easily done in deployment in the field, and is so cost effective, that our first customer turns out to be in an underdeveloped country.”
NatuWrap also is about one-fourth the cost of other shelf-life preservation coatings, Frye says.
“Our ability to use a coating that locks in the moisture and blocks out the oxygen is a huge differentiator from 1-mcp technology,” he says. “Differentiated from other coatings is the composition. The things that go into our coating are less complex.”
But, combined with water, the ingredients do something unexpected.
“When you take these components, dispersed in water, and put it on the surface of the fruit, it starts the self-assembling process of building this nanotechnology wall,” Frye says.
I visited Nabaco’s headquarters in San Marcos, not far from Texas State University, where the company was incubated through under professor and CEO Gary Beall’s program to commercialize materials science and engineering research.
Beall, a serial inventor who holds several patents focused on coatings, polymers and clay (he holds a patent for the clumping technology in cat litter, among others), had spent decades in business, but felt the call to help fellow inventors bring projects to market.
“I realized that academics hadn’t changed much since I got my PhD,” he said. “And that’s a big problem from the standpoint that a lot of the skills you need to be successful in industry – they don’t teach it in school.”
At Texas State, Beall is Associate Director of the Materials Science, Engineering and Commercialization program. He’s taken a step away from teaching to lead Nabaco after it earned seed money from Rice University’s Business Plan Competition in the spring of 2019.
The Nabaco headquarters is full of students and former students, including Carlos Corona, the company’s vice president of technology, and co-inventor Madeh Amiri, who continue to research the product’s efficacy in a number of different applications, particularly in field-packed produce like strawberries, soft melons, and grapes.
Nabaco also is working with retailers to test the product through the supply chain, with great results so far. Avocados have a wider ready-to-eat window after going through the same ripening process as uncoated fruit.
“We’re confident that ethylene will penetrate our coating, which is good news, but it’s done at a slower pace,” Frye says. “That’s all we wanted – to slow the pace down.”
Nabaco is in the process of securing additional investments and is moving forward with testing NatuWrap all along the produce supply chain.
Beall took a leave of absence from teaching at Texas State as the company moves toward market implementation. A 3 percent royalty goes back to the school as the technology is licensed from Texas State.
Many of the students that worked on development are from countries that could see the most benefit from shelf life extension, like Ghana, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
“A long term goal is to help eliminate food waste in general, but also help secure the food supply chain in underdeveloped countries,” Frye said.
To do that, the company was looking to commercialize in the U.S. and Europe first.
“What we’re doing is so easily done in deployment in the field, and is cost effective, that our first customer turns out to be an underdeveloped country,” Frye says. “We’re pretty excited about the possibilities.”