Agriculture

Manitoba company revolutionizing food safety

Exigence Technologies testing technology to help sanitize food manufacturing facilities
 
A Manitoba company could be on the verge of changing the way the world’s food manufacturers sanitize their facilities.
 
Zach Wolff and Sheri Governo, co-founders of Exigence Technologies, learned of a powerful self-disinfecting antimicrobial compound when they were touring the University of Manitoba’s Technology Transfer Office in 2014. They were searching for something they could develop a business plan around as part of their MBA program. They saw the compound’s potential - because it could bond to many different surfaces - and began to work with the researcher to understand the technology better and to see if they could commercialize the discovery.
 
“We thought it had the potential to be used for medical fabrics, which is very possible and something we can look at in the future, but as we developed the technology and found more practical applications for it, we started looking at food processing,” said Wolff. “It’s an industry that has a lot of challenges with keeping their environments clean, and they put a lot of time, money and effort into it.”
 
Through a lot of lab work, conversations with industry experts, and food processors, Exigence started developing a self-disinfecting acrylic coating that can be sprayed onto surfaces like floors, tables, holding tanks, conveyor belts and hard to clean equipment.
 
“Three years ago we didn’t know we’d be getting into the specialty chemical business or be a part of the coating industry, or other supply chains,” said Wolff. “It’s very technically complex and we’re still working through considerations. It’s not just about performance of the technology, we have to produce a coating which is its own area of science.”
 
Exigence’s antimicrobial technology is 10,000 times more powerful than anything else available on the market, including chlorine bleach, which is often used for sanitation in manufacturing and processing settings. The chlorine-based compound kills more bacteria more rapidly than other disinfectants, it is more environmentally friendly and it has rechargeable bacteria-killing agents.

In 2015, Exigence received support under the Growing Forward 2 (GF2) Growing Innovation initiative. Wolff and Governo were able to demonstrate that their Self-Disinfecting Food Contact Surface Coating Project was commercially viable. They have been improving the technology, consulting with experts, building industry alliances and developing supply chains ever since.
 
Christine Darker is the GF2 program officer for the Agri-Food Research and Development Initiative (ARDI), and she
assisted Exigence in the early stages of the funding process.
 
“It’s not just exciting for Exigence as they move along in their efforts, it is exciting for Manitoba to see such innovation in our province,” said Darker. “Having access to a product like this may give agri-food processors the ability to meet food safety standards more easily and for less expense.”
 
Food safety is in the news all over the world. With weekly or monthly product recalls announced to consumers, sanitation practices are top of mind for processors and producers who can suffer millions of dollars in losses in the event of a recall.
 
Patti Rothenburger oversees GF2 Growing Innovation projects and is also manager of the research intelligence branch at Manitoba Agriculture. Rothenburger said food safety is a top priority for the province.
 
“If we’re able to decrease product recalls as a result of foodborne pathogens in products, that is huge,” said Rothenburger. “The result of this project and technology will be a benefit to processors and should help to reduce food safety concerns.”
 
Darker added that “consumers are becoming more interested and concerned in how their food is handled and processed, and in the long term this product could help alleviate some of those concerns.”
 
The technology will be able to benefit companies with different processing environments and add value in different ways.
 
For example, yogurt manufacturers are looking to create cleaner environments with less risk of mould, mildew and yeast that may settle. That, in turn, can help reduce spoilage and increase the shelf life of their products.
 
Meat processors close down daily to disinfect and often have complex and difficult processes to clean equipment. Improving technology can help create better operational efficiency and, of course, reduce the risk of food contamination and recalls.
 
Potato processing plants operate 24/7 for a few weeks at a time before they get to a point where their microbial testing indicates that they have to shut down. Exigence’s research would help them find that point of failure and see how they can extend it for longer run times.
 
“We continue to have discussions with the food industry about where to apply our technology, and how we can tune it to be most beneficial to that type of environment,” said Wolff.
 
Wolff said the funding support from GF2 allowed Exigence to win prestigious Horizon 2020 grant funding from the European Union worth over one million euros to expand the project, establish a lab in France, and continue work in the United Kingdom.
 
While the product is not quite ready to test in commercial settings yet, Wolff said the technology is the closest it has ever been to completion, and Manitoba Agriculture made a big difference in getting it there. 
 
“No celebration dances until we’re actually in the end zone,” said Wolff, but it looks like his team is driving for a score.
 
For more information about what Exigence is developing for the food processing industry, visit the Exigence website.