4 Questions with 915 Labs’ CEO after $3m Seed Round for Sterilization and Food Processing Technology

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Food processing technology provider 915 Labs recently closed a $3 million seed round with food tech investors New Ground Ventures and early stage investors Theorem Ventures to help build out the company’s Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS) system.

What is MATS? “The MATS technology is a radically different and innovative alternative to conventional food processing,” 915 Labs CEO Michael Locatis told AgFunderNews. “MATS simultaneously heats packaged food externally in a pressurized hot water bath and internally using a patented microwave energy delivery system at a frequency of 915 megahertz.”

This combination of technology rapidly heats the packaging to a sterilizing temperature and rapidly cools it back down to cut down on any heat damage, eliminating pathogens and microorganism spoilage. “This shortened heating time preserves the nutrients, color, texture and flavor of foods while providing a shelf life equivalent to conventionally-processed foods,” says Locatis.

The bulk of the funding will be allocated to engineering and designing the MATS-150 commercial-scale system and supporting international food companies in developing new products with MATS.

Under conventional thermal processing, also referred to as retort processing, packaged foods are placed in large pressure cookers and subjected to high temperatures for up to an hour at a time. According to Locatis, food producers add flavor, texture, color enhancers, salt, and other unnatural ingredients to offset the damage done to the flavor profile of that food during this process.

This can, therefore, help improve the nutritional profile of food packaged under this technology, according to 915 Labs. MATS foods recipes start with half the amount of sodium than their traditional retort counterparts. In one example, the company indicates that a MATS salmon dish may retain roughly 5.3 milligrams of Omega 3 fatty acids while a comparable retort processed product would contain somewhere around 0.3 milligrams.

As the packaged foods industry experiences “a consumer demand crisis” amid a sea change in food and lifestyle preferences, 915 Labs’ technology is more relevant than ever, the company said in a statement.

“Traditionally processed foods have fallen out of favor with health-conscious consumers who believe that conventional food processing—also called ‘retort’—produces packaged foods that lack nutritional value and flavor,” reads the statement.

The technology’s first iterations can trace back to Washington State University, where food engineering scientist Juming Tang, Ph.D., led the development of the new food processing system over a 10-year period with the help of $22 million in funding from the US Army and private industry.

AgFunderNews recently caught up with CEO Michael Locatis to find out more about MATS; the consumer packaged goods market; and what may be up next for 915 Labs.

Who is your target user?

915 Labs is currently working with customers around the world, including major consumer food companies, international conglomerates, and the military.

How does MATS aim to meet the demand for consumer packaged goods?

MATS technology is a solution to one of the most pressing challenges facing the food industry today: meeting the growing consumer demand for high quality, natural and additive-free packaged foods. Legacy food sterilization technology (retort) — now more than 100 years old — is the major obstacle preventing food companies from reinventing their mass-market food brands to suit the demands of consumers and to scale natural food brands to reach broader markets. By processing and packaging food with MATS, food companies will be able to ‘clean up’ the labels of existing products and launch new natural food products.

Do you envision any other applications for MATS down the line?

MATS-processed food has a wide range of potential uses in addition to branded consumer packaged foods, including meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) for armed forces and rations distributed by humanitarian agencies in developing countries plagued by famine and food waste. MATS technology could also be used in regional agricultural centers, where sterilizing and packaging produce could provide an additional revenue stream to growers, in addition to reducing agricultural waste.

Are there any other companies on the market using this technology? Who do you see as your competition?

There is a handful of companies offering alternatives to legacy food processing, including high-pressure processing (HPP), and microwave processing at a frequency of 2450 MHz (as opposed to the 915 MHz wavelength used in MATS). We believe these companies are capable of serving only niche markets or in other cases, that their systems have significant technological downsides, such as expensive, proprietary and complicated packaging or processing food before it is packaged in a highly sterile environment.

We believe—and experts agree—that MATS is the best option available for food processing today. The commercial scale MATS-150 system, capable of processing 150 packages per minute, is designed to integrate into modern food production facilities, making use of existing cook, fill, and packaging lines.

Our MATS-B, a pilot-scale system designed for product development labs, allows food companies to develop recipes, produce samples for internal and market trials, validate food safety and test packaging materials and designs. Chefs and culinary experts from around the world are already working with MATS-B systems in several R&D food labs.

Finally, the MAPS-50 is a small-scale system that uses microwaves for pasteurization. This product line meets a wide range of food and beverage processing needs, from shelf-stable packaged foods and refrigerated beverages to ready-to-eat and airline meals.

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