Monday, 11th May, 2015

Enjoying the fruits of their labour

Adding value to primary produce is an area many New Zealand companies have yet to fully explore. But Auckland-based Fresh Appeal, established in 2002, is a step ahead of most. The company has developed, patented and commercialised unique technology that significantly improves both the food safety and shelf-life of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables.

Its automated, precision, low-trauma coring and slicing is followed by a unique multiple-step disinfection process that kills pathogens with ultraviolet light before they pass into a hot-water bath and antioxidant dip designed to prevent browning and extend the fruit's shelf-life. Fresh Appeal's CEO, Kell Holm, says it's disruptive technology that has leap-frogged historical methodologies.

'Our system is unique and far ahead of current processes that were adapted from traditional canning methods,' he says. 'We've recently added some new technology to the front end of the process that will revolutionise the existing equipment for the loading, coring and slicing of fruit, increasing processor yields substantially. The process also retains nutritional content, taste, visual quality and texture while securing food safety and meeting customer demands for convenience .'

Fresh Appeal designs its equipment locally, outsourcing the manufacture to New Zealand companies, and licensing the technology to international fruit processors who in turn pay a royalty on volumes processed. The Fresh Appeal System™ can be tailored to specific customer requirements and integrated into an existing processing line or installed as a stand-alone process.

US market and licensing

Fresh Appeal has established a strong market position in the US where its licensees - who predominantly supply supermarkets, quick-service restaurants and school lunch programmes - began processing apples using its equipment in 2010.

Bruce Yelverton, Head of Strategy & Special Projects at Fresh Appeal, says the technology is now being used to process more than 20% of commercial fresh-cut sliced apples in the US ready-to-eat healthy-option snack food market.

'The US is a huge market and we've done really well there,' says Yelverton. 'Our next step is to exploit the technology by diversifying into other fruit and vegetables and new geographical regions. We're executing our roll-out strategy into China, Southeast Asia, Australasia, South America and Europe.'

Research and development investment

Innovation is essential to Fresh Appeal's success. Through its privately owned R&D company, Step Sciences, it has invested millions into research and development, and has a robust intellectual property strategy to safeguard this technology, know-how and trade secrets.

Intellectual property firm AJ Park advises and assists Fresh Appeal with its trade marks and patents. Patent attorney David Simunic works closely with Fresh Appeal's management team, helping the company get the best value for its IP spend.

'Fresh Appeal are very sophisticated,' says Simunic. 'They have a talented team of engineers who are coming up with some really novel solutions. They're focused on their innovation, developing their intellectual property strategy and getting maximum value out of their IP. But, significantly, they're not afraid to pull the pin on technology that might not be working and to move on. They're a really clever bunch of people with great things in store.'

Patents and a robust intellectual property strategy

Simunic says Fresh Appeal has been smart enough not to reinvent the wheel and is happy to licence existing technology and expertise developed by its partners, including Crown Research Institute Plant and Food Research. Simunic has helped Fresh Appeal file patents around the world and says the future will be about devising a strategy to protect the company's competitive advantage.

Yelverton says the company's overarching strategy identified its key target markets and the territories in which it needed to file patents to support its licensing model.

Working with AJ Park has helped us define our goals. We've had a few false starts and learnt from those. Putting an IP strategy in place initially isn't simple, but it's saved us a lot of time and money in the long term. The board knows we're investing money wisely and we can demonstrate the returns. Having patents in place not only protects our technology and processes, it creates value, enabling us to justify our licensing fees. It's very powerful.

- Bruce Yelverton, Fresh Appeal

Freedom to operate searches 'valuable'

AJ Park also helps Fresh Appeal by carrying out freedom-to-operate searches - another valuable service, says Yelverton.

'David has a good understanding of engineering and can quickly grasp what we're doing, compare it to what exists in the market already, and clearly articulate what he's found and where our ideas fit.

'A significant amount of science and validation is required to meet food industry standards, so the know-how we've developed is incredibly valuable. Patents are important, but secrecy is just as crucial. AJ Park has provided input on the contracts and non-disclosure agreements we have with our customers and suppliers.'

Fresh Appeal is expanding its offering into airline catering, and plans to supply ready-to-eat snack products to the airline industry worldwide.

 

An edited version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of Idealog magazine. Photo credit: Jessie Casson.