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Posted: February 18, 2008
Start-Up Says Nanotechnology Will Keep Food From Spoiling
(Nanowerk News) GuardIN Fresh, one of several start-up companies getting its footing at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville, is courting investors to pay for third-party safety tests demanded by buyers.
The start-up’s “FreshFit” nanotechnology that’s used to retard food spoilage was invented by Ajay Malshe, a professor at the University of Arkansas.
“People always ask me if nanotechnologies will stay here for a long time or is this just another buzzword,” Malshe said. He believes they’re here for the long haul.
Malshe got the idea for the spoilage-retarding nanotechnology from his uncle in India, but Malshe was a UA faculty member when he figured out how to coat nonmetallic nanoparticles with silver. The university owns the process, and Malshe worked out a royalties deal to sell his invention.
His idea is simple, at least by nanotechnology standards Silver-coated nanoparticles are applied to plastic bags, containers, films or pallet wrap to absorb the ethylene gas that causes fruit and vegetables to spoil. The nanoparticles are about 1 / 70, 000 th the width of a human hair.
The cost of GuardIN Fresh’s silver-coated nanoparticles is low compared with the puresilver nanoparticles already on the market, said David Lewis, the company’s chief executive officer. For that reason, Lewis believes GuardIN Fresh can apply the silver to disposable containers like plastic produce bags.
The market leader in nanotechnology containers is FresherLonger, a product sold by Sharper Image. FresherLonger’s air-tight containers are laced with silver nanoparticles, and a four-piece set sells for $ 24. 95, according to the Shaper Image Web site. Lewis said GuardIN Fresh would be much cheaper, but couldn’t say exactly how much.
A spokesman for Sharper Image said FresherLonger is one of the retailer’s most popular products, but the company declined to say who makes the product and would not provide any sales data.
FresherLonger was introduced in 2006, but had to be removed from the shelves after the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency questioned the company’s antimicrobial claims under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Those claims were removed from FresherLonger packaging the line was returned to the shelves.
Other than that, there has been very little government oversight of nanoparticle technology, though the EPA may change that with a new program introduced in January.
The Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program is seeking voluntary input from manufacturers and retailers to assess the “hazards, exposures and risks” of chemical nanoscale materials, the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics said.
“The commercial possibilities are amazing, but at the same time the federal government has invested very little money in risk research,” said Colin Finan, a spokesman for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Inter- national Center for Scholars in Washington, D. C. Finan questioned whether a voluntary program would do much to regulate the industry.
Malshe contends that GuardIN Fresh’s silver nanoparticle product is safe. He said many people in India put silver on their desserts with no negative health consequences.
Although GuardIN Fresh’s research shows that the product extends vegetable and fruit life, the company needs third-party verification before it can pitch it to a manufacturer or retailer, Lewis said. GuardIN Fresh has raised half of the $ 300, 000 it needs to conduct product tests, but some of that money will be used for Food and Drug Administration packaging compliance.
Ted Zoller, director for the Center for Entrepreneurship Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N. C., has worked with hundreds of start-up companies in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
Zoller said about a quarter of these university-based businesses get private or “angel” equity from wealthy donors. About 20 percent are funded with venture capital, and half find money through banks or other traditional lending sources. “University start-ups typically do pretty well, because they have technologies that are valuable,” Zoller said. In 2006, 553 businesses were launched from technology developed at universities nationwide, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. Though the University of Arkansas is removed from the dayto-day operations of GuardIN Fresh, it lent strategic talent in the company’s earliest days. The business plan was produced by master’s of business administration students at the university’s Sam M. Walton College of Business.