A new startup aims to change the way food is stored and preserved, using technology that keeps meat, fish and produce flavorful at sub-zero temperatures.
“More than a third of the food we now produce is simply wasted or lost in some way. That has a lot to do with the way we store and store food,” said Paul Levins, co-founder of EverCase, which announced its debut in June.
EverCase’s technology can keep food pliable and prevent it from turning into a frozen block at temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius, according to company studies. The food boxes can be adapted to hold everything from whole fish to steaks and berries, and they fit into standard freezers.
The 8-member startup has roots in Seattle and operates in the city. Levins and CEO and co-founder Chris Somogyi were previously executives at Intellectual Ventures spinout Xinova, which helped match inventor ideas with clients and retired last year.
Somogyi later founded BlueNalu, a startup that markets fish products grown in cell culture.
Somogyi also took on the business development lead role at Xerox subsidiary PARC, a legendary Silicon Valley research and development company known for helping develop laser printing, Ethernet and graphical user interfaces. That’s where the idea for EverCase started.
Somogyi was intrigued by the technology being developed by Soojin Jun, a professor at the University of Hawaii and co-founder of EverCase. Jun’s food processing lab is studying ways to preserve food by supercooling it.
When food freezes, ice crystals damage cell structures. That’s why a frozen steak tastes like, well, frozen steak. It is also the reason why liquid seeps out after defrosting.
Jun developed a way to prevent the water in food from forming ice crystals at low temperatures. His device applies electric and magnetic fields to food so it can resist icing while it’s refrigerated.
Researchers have conducted experiments for years that suggest that electric fields can influence the formation of ice. The reason for the effect is not entirely clear, although water molecules have a slight positive charge on the one hand and a negative charge on the other, and thus react to electric fields. Studies also show that magnetic fields mysteriously also have an effect on icing in food.
“This is a very active area of research,” said Will Cantrell, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University who studies ice formation in the atmosphere.
Jun’s technology was brought into PARC, which raised seed capital and secured additional intellectual property. The team can now use electric and magnetic fields to cool food to temperatures lower than other systems, Levins said. They also overcame a previous limitation of the technology that required electrodes to be in physical contact with food.
“There are approaches that use pure electric fields with very high energy. We prefer approaches with low power and high security, and flexibility with size and easy transfer across the cold chain nodes,” said Somogyi, who has a background in bio engineering and is based in Wimberley, Texas.
Somogyi said he was not aware of other startups focusing on food refrigeration, although he noted that major companies such as Daikin and Siemens are engaged in traditional refrigeration.
Bringing such technology to an industrial scale poses additional challenges, Cantrell said. The strength of electromagnetic fields decreases with distance from the source. But making it work is potentially very profitable, he said. “You could extend the shelf life and you could increase the reach of your shipping,” he said. Perishable items such as berries may also be available outside of their normal season.
After testing more than 20 prototypes, EverCase has a system ready to market. Company studies show that their cases can prevent the formation of ice crystals in food at temperatures between -4 and -12 degrees Celsius.
The EverCase team is currently investigating custom systems for early customers. The potential customer base includes food manufacturers and shippers.
“We get the same benefits from freezing while retaining quality and texture,” Levins says. “It will disrupt the cold supply chain.” And the company could also make a dent in food waste, he said.
In addition, the system can be adapted to tissue or organs, adds Levins, who is based in Sydney, Australia.
Charlotte Guyman, a former Microsoft exec and Berkshire Hathaway executive, serves on the Seattle advisory board for EverCase. The company also has operations in Australia and Spain and is picking up a Series A round.