It’s a problem that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever gone rummaging around at the back of their fridge. All of a sudden, you come across a half-opened packet of ham that you forgot was there. You have a sniff, you have a smell, you have a poke and a prod, but you still can’t tell whether the ham is safe to eat and so you chuck it in the bucket “just to be on the safe side”. If only there was an indicator on the label to advise you on how long the packet of ham has been open.
Food waste is a problem on an international scale. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent
of the food produced globally never reaches the consumer because it ‘goes off’ while still in transit. Yet the world’s growing appetite shows no signs of abating. With the latest figures from the United Nations predicting that the earth’s population will rise from 7.3 billion at present to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, farmers will have even more mouths to feed in the years ahead.
Step forward Insignia Technologies, a company based at the BioCity Scotland life sciences incubator at Newhouse in Lanarkshire. Insignia makes a range of ‘smart’ pigments and inks that can change colour when exposed to a variety of gases or ultra-violet (UV) light.
The company has used its pigments and inks to create indicators that show what stage food has reached – whether it is still fresh, whether it needs to be used up soon or whether it is past its best. The indicator can be built into the film lid or the bag; once the packaging is opened and the protective carbon dioxide is released, the indicator starts the countdown and begins to change colour, with the time for the colour change pre-set to match consumer guidelines and varying with temperature – so if that pack of ham was left out of the fridge then the label will know and indicate that it has ‘gone off’ quicker.
Insignia also makes products for earlier stages in the food production process. In the foodservices industry – which covers a broad range of outlets from bars, cafes and restaurants all the way through to staff canteens, sandwich factories and other food processors – the company makes ‘smart dots’, which can be attached to packaging and show when it has been open for 24, 48 or 72 hours, turning from yellow, through red to purple.
The smart dots are designed to help prevent human error by replacing older systems in which the date that a package was opened is written onto a label and then stuck onto the bag or jar.
Further back in the food chain, the company also makes labels that can be used when fresh food is being shipped and distributed. Insignia’s detection labels show the level of carbon dioxide inside the protective wrapping surrounding a pallet. This means that forklift drivers or other warehouse staff can immediately see the freshness of the food inside the pallet, allowing them to identify pallets that have been delayed and now need to be shipped, or whether the carbon dioxide levels need to be topped up to help protect the food.
The company has also developed intelligent stock rotation labels, which can be attached to punnets or shipping boxes. Just like the smart dots for the foodservices industry, the stock rotation labels change colour to show how long a box or other packet has been opened, allowing warehouse managers or shop staff to make sure produce is sold while it’s still fresh.
“We commercialised our first products about 18 months ago and our customers on the west coast of the United States – including Transfresh – are already using our labels as part of their systems for transporting soft fruit,” says Jonny Macneal, business development manager at Insignia Technologies. “We also work closely with a number of quick-service restaurants and supermarket retailers in the US.
“In the UK, we are running a number of pilot studies with customers and we hope to start seeing revenues from the UK in early 2017. In South America, we’re involved with a project in Argentina that’s about to be extended into Brazil.”
Insignia Technologies was formed in August 2012 through the merger of Dundee-based Insignia Pack, which had created a range of intelligent inks, and Novas Technologies, a spin-out company from the University of Strathclyde, which was developing smart pigment technology. The business has grown to employ seven full-time staff in the UK and a part-time member of staff in the US.
The company raised £865,000 of funding in October 2013 from a group of investors led by Equity Gap and including Highland Venture Capital, Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Investment Bank, the University of Strathclyde, management and high net worth individuals. All of the investors contributed to further investment rounds of £985,000 and £886,000, with 24 Haymarket – a London-based early-stage private capital investor – joining the shareholders during the second fundraising tranche.
“Being based at BioCity Scotland gives us access to the laboratory facilities that our three chemists need in order to carry out stress testing on new and existing products as well as any additional research and development work,” explains Macneal. “We can also modify products for specific customer needs and we can use BioCity’s on-site good manufacturing practice (GMP) stability storage units to carry out experiments.
“We were one of the first companies at BioCity Scotland, so it’s been interesting to see the facility grow and more neighbours arrive. We use some of the services from other companies that are based here, including microbiological work.”