MIDDLESEX — FirstWave Innovations plans to create 42 jobs and invest more than $10 million in a food processing plant geared toward farmers and small businesses coming to the Middlesex Corporate Centre.
President, CEO and co-founder Michael Druga touted the company’s technological advancements and quality control during a Thursday ribbon-cutting ceremony. FirstWave wants to offer “a better color, a better taste, a more nutritious product than anything else on the market,” he said.
JOBS, TAX REVENUE
FirstWave is setting up shop in the business park’s 62,500-square-foot shell building. The company plans to open its doors in December or January, according to human resources representative Stephanie Wood.
Nash County Economic Development Director Andy Hagy said FirstWave’s significance to Middlesex is “jobs, first of all.” The community benefits whether the company hires current residents who are unemployed or recruits workers who relocate to southern Nash County and contribute to the economy.
FirstWave’s building and equipment will generate tax revenue for the county, Hagy said, and that money supports public resources like police and fire departments and schools.
Hagy said he’s learned over the years to explain economic development in a way people understand — it helps keep homeowners’ property taxes down. He noted that county commissioners haven’t raised the tax rate in 10 years.
“Sixty-seven cents per $100, and we would like to keep that record going and not raise taxes,” he said.
QUALITY AT STARTUP SCALE
Druga said he wants to make food processing available to everyone, especially those who are “growing locally, harvesting locally.”
“Even if it is a California-based company, that’s fine,” he said. “But you’ve got to buy North Carolina-grown fruits and vegetables.”
Wife Kim Druga said the couple moved from Florida to North Carolina 12 years ago to meet with Sinnovatek co-founder and chief science officer Josip Simunovic, Ph.D, and his students and colleagues to achieve a dream of making quality food products that don’t lose their nutrients in hopes of reducing food waste.
FirstWave Innovations and SinnovaVita are Sinnovatek subsidiaries. FirstWave provides a platform for companies to test and launch new products without the minimum order quantities normally required, according to a company news release.
SinnovaTek provides continuous-flow microwave processing systems and pumps to food manufacturers, along with engineering and research and development support. SinnoVita provides ingredient technologies meant to reduce food waste and increase nutrient delivery.
Pablo Coronel, Ph.D., is primary developer of FirstWave’s aseptic food processing technology, according to K.P. Sandeep, head of N.C. State University’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. The technology allows workers to preserve and package food without harmful bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms.
Microwave processing equipment use electromagnetic waves in specific frequencies to generate heat as a form of aseptic processing.
Druga, Simunovic and Simunovic’s former student Amanda Vargochik, Ph.D., formed the parent company Sinnovatek in Raleigh.
Simunovic said it’s “absolutely crucial” to process fruits and vegetables close to where they’re grown to preserve ripeness and quality. When produce travels a long distance, it arrives at processing centers in an inferior quality state.
Food processed with FirstWave technology has a shelf life of 12-18 months without refrigeration, Simunovic said.
Faculty at N.C. State’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences have researched and developed most of the technology SinnovaTek uses, according to its founder, with work stretching back to the 1970s.
Simunovic said he’s proud of the students who came out of the program and helped FirstWave and similar companies “maintain high quality and sustainability in environmental benefits of advanced technologies throughout the world.”
Sandeep, who was Simunovic’s colleague at N.C. State for more than a decade, said “commercialization was not a goal” when professors began the work. He said the researchers simply wanted to see how the technology could be used to improve food preservation.
“It’s a good growing region around here — you know, having so many sweet potatoes, for example,” said Vargochik, co-founder and chief innovation officer. “Just a lot of good farmer networks around.”
She has worked with Druga for about 10 years. As an N.C. State grad student, she worked to develop the technology, with Simunovic serving as one of her research advisers.
Muscadine grapes have antioxidants in the seeds and skin that are usually thrown away. Vargochik’s project used those antioxidants in food processing to make products more shelf-stable.
Natalie Plundrich, Ph.D, serves as technology development manager for SinnovaTek, SinnoVita and FirstWave. SinnovaTek hired her in 2018 after she conducted research on microwave technology at N.C. State.
Her previous work extracted antioxidants from beet and blueberry skins to manufacture gummies with the microwave food processing technology. She also worked on polyphenols, nutrients found in plants and food sources like red wine, dark chocolate and berries, and discovered they can reduce allergy symptoms.
“I do love that we’re kind of serving a lot of different people,” Plundrich said, “like the folks who just have an amazing idea for a product — like Grandma’s recipe — but they just don’t have a way to actually get that started and on the market.”
REDUCING FOOD WASTE
Plundrich said she loves the idea of “giving innovative brands a chance.”
“We’re focusing on really reducing food waste,” she said.
SinnovaTek and its subcompanies “upcycle some of the leftover material from the skins and seeds” and use that composted material to “create a new, value-added” product, Plundrich said.
About 30% of food produced in the United States goes uneaten, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. FirstWave allows farmers to make processed foods from crops that are usually thrown away due to irregularities in size and shape that would make them less appealing to consumers.
Samir Masri, senior food technologist, helps entrepreneurs incorporate aseptic processing into their products. He said food waste usually starts in the field.
“A lot of times, farmers don’t have an outlet for their crops,” Masri said.
FirstWave processing allows growers to harvest irregular or imperfect crops, “put them in a shelf-stable package and deliver that nutrition to the marketplace,” he explained, preventing the food from being wasted and letting farmers “provide it for people that need it.”
Masri said the company is working to offer more sustainable packaging, which poses a challenge due to supply chain disruptions in manufacturing.
For more information on FirstWave and an application to commercialize a food product, visit www.sinnovatek.com.