NanoICE aims to cut food waste with colder, smaller, softer ice
A staggering 30 percent of all food grown worldwide is lost or wasted before it reaches the table, according to estimates from the British government. In developing countries with poor transportation infrastructure, that figure can approach 50 percent.
One unlikely solution: colder, smaller ice engineered by the Bothell, Wash., startup NanoICE. The company develops “liquid ice,” a slurry-like substance that it says can cool food up to 20 times faster than other methods. And chilling food faster – be it seafood, poultry, or fruits and vegetables – can cut down on bacteria, lipid oxidation and other effects that harm food on its way to market.
“Most of the waste happens after things are harvested or slaughtered,” Craig Rominger, NanoICE’s chief executive, told me when I stopped by for a tour. “We can create more sustainable food sources simply by managing what we collect a little better.”
The chief feature of “nanoice,” as the name suggests, is its size – cubes are smaller than a micron, small enough to pass through a hypodermic needle. That lets much more surface area touch the food it’s cooling, producing a faster heat transfer. It also takes a liquid form that lets it begin cooling immediately, unlike conventional ice, which must melt to do its work. Because it’s also softer than solid ice, fragile foods like seafood and produce undergo less bruising during shipment, Rominger says.
Those are a lot of claims from an early-stage company that says little about the technology within its ice-making machines. The company has made its case to investors who backed it with $500,000 in a funding round last fall. It also won the Zino Zenith Award for Best Investment Opportunity from Northwest entrepreneurs and angel investors in 2010. Rominger says he’s in talks with four of the nation’s top 10 poultry producers about using its technology.
The company’s also got a prominent customer in Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, the historic vendor beloved by tourists for the high-energy workers who throw their products back and forth as they make their sales. The market installed a NanoICE machine this month and is in the process of training and replacing its flake ice displays with the new stuff. That’ll let it keep products like lobster tails and King Salmon for longer than it does now, fishmonger Jeremy Ridgway told me.
“We’ll be able to keep things for a week or two instead of one or two days,” he said. “Although we go through product so quick, we usually don’t have to worry about it.”
Rominger expects his year-old company to make its first major sales in the poultry and seafood industries. Fishing boats often limit the length of their trips because they need to get their first catches back to land before bacteria does its damage, he says.
“We tell our fishing customers, “Don’t come back before your boat is full,’” he said. “I don’t want people going out and catching more fish until we make the most of what we’ve already got.”
Other companies, like Sunwell Technologies of Toronto, make slurry ice machines that operate on similar principles, though Rominger says nanoice is more than 150 times smaller than Sunwell’s product. Mike Okoniewski, Alaska operations manager at Pacific Seafood Group, said he hasn’t worked with nanoice but has seen the advantage with other forms of slurry ice.
“Chilling [seafood] faster definitely keeps it in better shape all the way around,” he said. “That can extend the trip.”
Rominger’s partner, Snaebjorn Tr. Gudnason, developed the technology in Iceland while looking for a more flexible, fluid form of ice to use on fishing boats. The company says little about what happens inside its machines, except that it uses conventional refrigerant and can be controlled with just two switches and a dial. The mush that emerges from a nozzle looks a bit like a milky-white Slurpee. It’s colder to the touch than normal ice and, when you look closely, is fine enough to leave fingerprints on its surface.
Since both executives have backgrounds in seafood, their first 15 or so sales have been in that industry. They’ve also formed a non-profit to work with aid groups to find applications in the developing world. And they’ve enlisted University of Washington medical researchers to find out if nanoice could be useful in organ transplants.
To draw an analogy, NanoICE is a bit like Transphorm, the Google Ventures-backed company that builds products to trim the electricity waste that’s lost in power conversion. Boosting efficiency may be less sexy than actually harvesting energy or food, but it can have transformative effects, given all that’s lost in transmission.
Now it’s time to see if NanoICE can raise the same kind of investment that Transphorm has – Rominger says he expects to close another funding round this spring.