Nat4Bio research hammers forward to benefit industry
Nat4Bio brings a new approach to reducing fruit spoilage.
From his office in Rosario, Argentina, Joaquin Fisch, CEO and co-founder, had a video conference with FreshFruitPortal.com to describe Nat4Bio’s emerging role in the ancient challenge.
Nat4Bio develops organic and edible coatings to reduce supply chain waste. This comes from fermenting biological solutions for food protection.
“We believe the industry has these pain points right now in dealing with short shelf life and long transit times. At the same time a lot of the different compounds, pesticides and formulations the industry relies on now are being banned to restrictions or the maximum residue limits are being lowered so there is a huge need for developing biological solutions for postharvest.
This is a sector that hasn’t received the same degree of attention as, for example, field diseases, field crop control, or microbiological fertilizers or that kind of subset of the industry. And we are super happy to be innovating in this sector.
Nat4Bio’s technology has many potential applications within the fresh fruit industry. The young firm’s initial focus was to extend lemon shelf life. Nat4Bio’s coatings are ideally suited to lemons. And the firm is in close proximity to Argentine lemon groves in Tucuman.
Argentina exports around 250,000 tons of lemons a year. “We had close ties relatively quickly with the leaders in lemon production and we can get our product in their hands as the very first customers.
There is definitely a lot of interest” from those grower-packers. The formulation is now used in Argentina lemon packing lines in Argentina. Nat4Bio is working to set up mid-term research and development agreements with U.S. lemon packers.
Fisch notes Argentine lemons “are shipped to top jurisdictions like the U.S. and EU, that are constantly revisiting the limits and lists of allowed molecules” for food applications. “They are always looking for new ways to fight against postharvest spoilage.”
Nat4Bio has prototypes for pears, which are also an import export crop for Argentina. The firm also has prototypes for avocados, blueberries and strawberries. For most of these there is “some proof of concept but they’re not as finished as the product for lemons or for citrus. So, we still need to tweak some things on those formulations.”
Toward that tweaking, Nat4Bio is scientifically testing some of its assumptions and observations on its product tests. For example, “avocados covered with our product take longer to develop the characteristic dark or brown peel. …What we believe is that somehow our coating allows the ethylene to get out of the fruit and it doesn’t allow it to get in. …We still need to prove it but we are going in that direction.”
Fisch adds that his coating is already proven to reduce moisture loss. It also “reduces weight loss in all the crops we have tested. It reduces shrinkage. It reduces desiccation (which is the removal of moisture). In a room without humidity, coated lemons remain humid and juicy lots longer than uncoated lemons.”
In the case of avocados the coating allows the fruit to remain firm for longer. He reports that avocados retain a bright green color longer and the coating prevents the pulp from getting the dark green, or brown inside.
Other tests in Nat4Bio labs measure nutritional value of coated fruits. After a long 40-day lab test, there is preliminary evidence that the biochemical parameters that affect organoleptic properties - like vitamin C, acidity, pH and Brix - remain the same as an uncoated fruit, which is good.
“It would be a good product. We still need to benchmark our product against other solutions that are already in the market or are still in the research and development phase. Of course that will be difficult because we don’t have access to those types of products. But we know that our product is good. The question is how good it is. And is it better than our competitors? Or is it worse? Because just good isn’t enough.”
Fisch continues: “Right now one of the main value propositions our product will allow is providing the same degree of effectiveness as synthetic combinations of waxes and fungicides, while we maintain the zero pesticide residue marketing label that could allow our customers to access a price premium.”
As it moves toward the market, Nat4Bio doesn’t yet have a brand name for its product.
“We are the only company that is using a microbial-based approach in the development of these coatings. Other folks in the U.S., EU and Israel use compounds derived from plants or insects. All of those are innovative and technological breakthroughs but if we are to imagine a global operation, sourcing those main compounds at scale gets challenging. In contrast, our process only requires a bioreactor, our microbes and a simple source of sugar. And we can ferment a batch of these compounds anywhere in the world.”
Nat4Bio’s process brings the friendliness of a biological product but with the replicability of a synthetic product. “We believe this will lead to a higher, more scalable operation and will lead us to a product base that is cheaper to get than competitors.”
Fisch’s cofounders and partners are Leandro Sanchez, who has a PhD in Biological Sciences and Julia Fariña, PhD in Biochemistry. Fariña is the chief scientific officer and Sanchez is Nat4Biols chief technical officer. They work from a lab and offices in Tucuman. Fisch is an industrial engineer.
As the company has developed since 2021, “we need to start looking for other economically important crops with high export bias” in addition to lemons and other citrus. Other considerations are serving commodities like pears, avocados, mangos, apples and bananas, in addition to lemon.
“We could be one year away from market,” says Fisch. Nat4Bio at Fruit Logistica 2023 in Berlin this February, having been named as one of 20 start-ups developing groundbreaking products, projects and ideas at the fourth Fruit Logistica Start-up Day.
On Feb. 9, Fisch reported from Berlin: “The show is excellent so far, it's nice to make some connections in person rather than the typical digital way. As for the comments and feedback, we are setting up some pilots with pear packers and exporters in the Alto Valle region in Argentina, and opening more opportunities by engaging with the green lime and mango value chains. Plus, we are also getting some validation from European importers, which is good because so far we've been reaching out mainly to exporters and it's positive to understand the pain on both sides of the value chain.
Going forward in placing Nat4Bio products, “We want to think about the value we are generating for our customers. I’m talking about reducing shrink rates, increasing shelf life, reducing postharvest fungal infections, in a very comparable way to synthetic alternatives but accessing to a higher value-added markets, like the biological market, ecological markets, organic markets, zero residue markets that operate with a price premium.”
Fisch said Nat4Bio’s broad goal is to develop biological solutions for crop protection.
“If we want to tag ourselves, we will be as an agricultural biotechnology company. Our first product is a fully edible organic coating that is applied on the surface of fresh fruit, which extends the shelf life of fresh produce. And it also works as a matrix for supporting natural antimicrobials. So, the product will be a liquid. And the liquid is applied with any existing equipment. We designed the formulations to be hardware agnostic, meaning they can be used with any existing machinery that is in every packing line. It is a liquid and when it gets dry it forms a very thin biofilm. The biofilm is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. This coating in the end regulates the gas exchange between the fruit and the environment so that the ripening process gets slowed down and we then functionalize this biofilm with antimicrobials. So right now we’re working with one antimicrobial that comes from bacterial sources. It has a wide mechanism of action so it works against a wide variety of pathogens and that is also great in terms of minimizing resistance concerns.”
Nat4Bio positions itself as an environmentally friendly and consumer friendly solution.
Fisch says product registration in the U.S. could take less than four months because the product is a new combination of all known compounds. “All the compounds have already been tested for safety sometime in the past few years. So, it’s likely to be a registration process instead of the approval of a new molecule, which would take considerably more time.”