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Next Small Business Wave? EnWave

[ 0 ] Jan. 4, 2013 | SBO Editor

A British Columbia firm whose technologies could revolutionize the way foods and vaccines are preserved recently signed an exclusive, royalty-bearing commercial license with a billion dollar multinational food corporation, and has just begun earning royalties from one of its dehydration machines that was sold to a top American fruit processor.

The company is EnWave Corp., with engineering facilities in Delta, research labs at the University of BC, and head office in downtown Vancouver.

Its machines use microwaves in a vacuum environment to dry blueberries, spinach, shrimp and other foods, preserving nutritional value, shape, flavour and colour – at a fraction of the time to freeze-dry, a third of the energy cost, and a sixth of the capital cost for the machinery.

EnWave’s technology is being tested by companies such as Nestlé (the world’s largest food and beverage firm), Kellogg’s ($13.2 billion in sales last year), Ocean Spray (a co-operative of 700 cranberry growers across Canada and the U.S.), and Grimmway (the biggest carrot grower, processor and shipper on the planet).

It’s already being used to process some of BC’s blueberry crop, which last year topped 95 million pounds, making British Columbia the world’s largest blueberry-producing region, according to the BC Blueberry Council.

“Made-in-BC technology is helping to create new markets for our province’s No. 1 exported fruit, creating jobs on blueberry farms throughout the Fraser Valley,” said Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. “EnWave itself has grown from a one-person company in 1999 to having 26 people on staff today, and continues to hire more engineers and food scientists.”

The genius behind EnWave is University of BC food science professor Dr. Tim Durance, who spent years developing microwave vacuum technology that could be scaled up for commercial use.

The basic concept sounds simple. The higher above sea level, the lower the boiling point of water, due to the reduction in atmospheric pressure. Putting food in a vacuum, which only radiant energy like microwaves can penetrate, reduces the boiling point much further, so food can be dried at approximately room temperature.

Nutrients, colour and flavour are preserved. The vacuum removes the oxygen that turns apple slices brown, for example. And the speed of dehydration leaves freeze-drying in its dust.

“The speed of drying using this technology is only limited by the speed you want to put the energy in,” says Durance, who notes freeze-drying typically takes two to three days, where as his REV process – short for radiant energy vacuum – can take as little as a minute, although the usual rate is just under an hour.

The other difference between REV and freeze-drying is that REV is done in a continuous process, rather than in batches. So one nutraREV machine, for example, can do the work of seven large freeze-dryers – and there’s no danger of an entire batch being spoiled should something go awry.

EnWave has also signed a collaboration agreement with pharmaceutical giant Merck (annual revenues, $47 billion), which is testing REV technology on vaccines and antibodies. Other technology takes more than 40 hours to dry these substances; EnWave’s freezeREV has it down to less than 50 minutes. EnWave also believes vaccines dried using this technology will have a longer shelf-life – and won’t need refrigeration, a huge benefit in Third World countries.

The company offers six different dehydration options. nutraREV, which has been used by CAL-SAN Enterprises in Richmond since 2009, has a series of porous drums to tumble blueberries or other foods in a vacuum chamber that is bombarded by microwave energy. It can be set to vary the final moisture content, resulting in textures ranging from crunchy to chewy. The food can also be “puffed,” a process that lets berries come out as plump as they went in, rather than shrivelling and shrinking. One nutraREV machine can produce up to 300 kilograms of dried food in an hour.

To complement nutraREV, EnWave acquired the North American rights to a German-designed technology, MIVAP, which uses a tray system to handle soft fruits like raspberries that do not take kindly to being tumbled. In April, Milne Fruit Products Inc. began full-scale production of blueberry, raspberry and blackberry dried fruits and powder using MIVAP at its Idaho plant. The products are expected to be incorporated in everything from baked goods, trail mixes and granola bars to baking mixes.

quantaREV, currently being developed, uses a continuous belt and will be able to dehydrate pastes, gels, liquids and particulates. powderREV is designed to dry food cultures, probiotics and fine biochemicals like enzymes, in bulk. bioREV is being tested along with freezeREV for use with vaccines and other biopharmaceuticals.

Companies buy the machines and also pay a royalty on the sale of everything they process. The royalty guarantees them that EnWave will not sell the technology to direct competitors, thus providing clients with a marketplace advantage.

Meanwhile, EnWave is racking up awards for its work. In April, Life Sciences BC presented Durance with its 2012 Innovation & Achievement Award, which recognizes individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the province’s life sciences industry.

In 2012, the company won the Investment Agriculture Foundation’s Award of Excellence in Innovation as well.

And last February, EnWave made the TMX Group’s Venture 50 list for the third straight year.

“Over the past two years, EnWave announced five more world-class collaborations, signed two additional commercial licences and raised over $12 million in equity financing,” said John McNicol, EnWave’s president and co-CEO. “This recognition confirms the significance of our business developments in 2011-2012.”

Quick Facts:

  • The technology sector in British Columbia provides jobs for more than 84,000 people and produced revenues of $18.9 billion in 2009.
  • BC’s technology sector develops process innovations, new products and new business models that increase the competitiveness of the province’s other key sectors, including agrifoods.
  • BC’s agrifoods sector provides more than 61,000 jobs and generates close to $10.5 billion a year in provincial revenues.
  • BC has the most diverse agrifoods industry in Canada, with more than 200 agriculture commodities and 100 seafood species.
  • The province has more than 1,400 food and beverage processing businesses.
  • BC exports over $2.5 billion worth of agrifoods products to 135 countries worldwide.

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Category: Features