Bentonville startup Solve For Food is planning to build what it calls a Food Innovation Center in Springdale next year and is hoping to raise $13 million in capital for the project.
The center will focus on teaching the food industry, academics and nonprofits about a new type of food-processing technology called microwave-assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS.
MATS uses a combination of a hot water bath and microwave technology to sterilize packaged food quickly and safely, said Greg Spragg, president and CEO of Solve For Food.
Spragg said that the MATS process is superior because it “dramatically reduces the amount of time that a product or packaged food has to be subjected to heat, thereby eliminating the need for flavor enhancers, preservatives, color enhancers, those sorts of things … It dramatically reduces the sodium content.”
Solve For Food has secured an initial investor in the center, IV Ventures LLC of Flower Mound, Texas, but Spragg declined to disclose how much capital the company has raised so far and how much IV Ventures LLC has invested.
He did offer a timeline for the center, however, saying the 20,000-SF building could open in mid-2019.
Spragg said it will provide established food companies, startups, academics and nonprofits working to decrease food insecurity and eliminate food deserts (areas where access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy whole foods is lacking) with a space where they can test recipes, conduct consumer testing and get help with Food & Drug Administration approvals. Solve For Food will make money by offering a menu of services with a fee attached to each service.
Spragg said MATS technology was developed by Washington State University. The technology is exclusively licensed by 915 Labs of Centennial, Colorado, whose CEO is Solve For Food’s senior adviser, Mike Locatis.
“The former, most broadly used form of sterilization of packaged food is called retort,” Spragg said. “And retort has been around for more than 200 years. It exposes food to prolonged high heat.”
But the MATS process is better, he said. MATS-processed foods can be kept on a shelf for up to one year, can be shipped at room temperature and are “clean label.”
Clean label is a trending marketing term the food industry uses for products that don’t have artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals and contain natural, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand and pronounce.
“The [MATS] technology is important because it is the pathway to clean label, shelf stable, packaged food that is healthy and nutritious,” Spragg said. “And there is enormous consumer demand that is driving that” in both the American and global markets.
The center in Springdale will have kitchens, and Solve For Food will buy a MATS-30 commercial-scale food production system from 915 Labs for it. The system will be able to produce up to 10 million packages per year. Spragg said the center will be suitable for small-scale production and research and development efforts.
Organizations that use the center will also have access to culinary and food science experts, FDA process authorities and branding and packaging strategists.
Spragg is partly responsible for the company making its home in northwest Arkansas and building its first center there.
Solve For Food, founded in 2015, moved to Bentonville from Denver last year after consulting the GrowthWise Group about whether the move was feasible. Spragg was managing director there.
He said the startup wanted to be closer to companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville and Tyson Foods Inc. in Springdale. The company’s chairman, Keith Larson, and Locatis, the adviser, asked Spragg to lead it.
His career includes 10 years on the executive team for Sam’s Club. He left the company in 2008 as chief merchant and executive vice president of merchandising and replenishment. Spragg was also on Wal-Mart’s executive committee.
Larson’s background includes a stint at Procter & Gamble, where he was a manufacturing manager. He was also president of sales at Cenveo Inc. of Denver and Portland, a global provider of print supply chain solutions.
Larson now serves on the global board of trustees for TiE, a nonprofit network of entrepreneurs based in Sunnyvale, California, and is also CFO and chief business officer of AllHealth Network in the Denver area.