Our Start-up of the Week is Senoptica, a company that has developed packaging sensor technology that aims to improve food safety and reduce waste.
Senoptica is a spin-out from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Chemistry and the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER).
Its CEO, Brendan Rice, explained that the start-up has developed an oxygen sensor for the type of packaging that fresh chicken fillets, sliced cooked meats, minced beef and plant-based meat substitutes come in.
“Most people don’t know this, but the air inside those packs has been changed or modified to help the food stay fresher for longer,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.
“There are billions of these sold around the world every year, but there are two key issues with this type of packaging.”
The first issue is that the packs can, and often do, fail to do their job, Rice said. When a pack fails, the food spoils rapidly, creating food waste and making the product a food safety hazard. The second issue is that companies can only test a tiny proportion of all packed products, because the tests that exist today are destructive.
Testing and tracing
“This means that once a pack has been tested, you have to throw the pack away and repack the contents. This is massively wasteful of plastic packaging,” Rice said.
“Because oxygen is the single best indicator of a failed pack, Senoptica has developed an oxygen sensor for this type of packaging. The sensor is created by incorporating an ink formulation into the packaging.”
Once Senoptica’s ink formulation is incorporated into the packaging, it can be scanned using the company’s vision system.
“This allows every pack to be tested, rather than a small sample of each production batch, generating results in real time, at any point in the supply chain throughout the entire life of the pack.”
‘Despite Ireland having a world-renowned food industry, the foodtech start-up scene is almost non-existent’
– BRENDAN RICE
The sensor also generates valuable traceability data that fills a vital gap with newly emerging food traceability systems such as the IBM Food Trust.
The company’s hope is that some day, there’ll be a sensor on every piece of plastic packaging that is produced. According to Rice, there are more than 177bn of these packages produced each year.
The business was co-founded by Rice, who has extensive experience in the food industry and a background in the commercial disciplines of innovation, marketing and sales. Over the course of his career, Rice has grown portfolios worth more than £500m and led large cross-functional teams to deliver new innovations.
He leads Senoptica along with co-founders Dr Steve Comby and Dr Rachel Evans.
Comby co-invented Senoptica’s technology and led the development of the project from early-stage research to industrial-scale production. Comby holds a PhD in organic chemistry from École Polytechnique Féderalé de Lausanne, Switzerland.
Evans, meanwhile, is the co-inventor of Senoptica’s concept and has overseen the development of the project from inception. She is currently furthering research interests in the science underpinning the Senoptica technology at Cambridge University. She holds a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Wales.
At present, the start-up is in paid trials with a major international food company and in advanced negotiations with other companies.
Senoptica is also in the process of raising seed funding. “We are approaching a close on raising €1.5m to exploit this exciting global opportunity,” Rice said.
However, he added that, to date, the company has found it challenging to grow in its home market. “Despite Ireland having a world-renowned food industry, the foodtech start-up scene is almost non-existent in Ireland at the moment.
“This has forced us to get outside of Ireland for capital, advice and customers.”
With that said, the company has received help from the likes of Enterprise Ireland, which has provided support through the Business Partners Programme. Rice also said that Neil Gordon, the start-up development manager at Trinity College Dublin, has been “instrumental” in helping Senoptica navigate the university system and introducing the firm to investors.
He added that the help of Atlantic Bridge Ventures and the NDRC has been invaluable to Senoptica as the start-up sets its sights on future growth.
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