Cathie Anderson

Sacramento firm sells food producers on UCD technology

RF Biocidics President and CEO Craig Powell stands next to an Apex sterilization machine used to eliminate pathogens, pests and fungi from nuts, seeds and grain at his company’s plant in North Natomas. RF Biocidics’s technology, which kills potential food hazards without the use of chemicals, was developed at the University of California, Davis.
RF Biocidics President and CEO Craig Powell stands next to an Apex sterilization machine used to eliminate pathogens, pests and fungi from nuts, seeds and grain at his company’s plant in North Natomas. RF Biocidics’s technology, which kills potential food hazards without the use of chemicals, was developed at the University of California, Davis. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

At RF Biocidics headquarters in North Natomas, CEO Craig Powell and a team of roughly 20 employees are trying to sell a cautious industry on a chemical-free alternative to killing the pests, pathogens and fungi that infest food.

Before sales began in 2011, however, RF Biocidics’ scientists and engineers spent three years figuring out how to take radio-frequency technology developed in labs at University of California, Davis, and make it work in the massive machines needed for commercial production. Then they had to persuade food distributors and processors that RF Biocidics’ machines, priced at $1 million-plus, would be more reliable and effective than the chemicals, gas dryers or steam treatments they had been using.

Selling the industry on change has proved to be a tougher hurdle than commercial development, but Powell predicted that the company will achieve profitability this year. It has clients on every continent except Antarctica, he said.

“I can’t figure out a market target for Antarctica,” he said. “But we’ve got machines in South America, Australia, in the Middle East, Europe and obviously in the United States, Mexico. It’s very much a global company.”

I can’t figure out a market target for Antarctica. But we’ve got machines in South America, Australia, in the Middle East, Europe and obviously in the United States, Mexico. It’s very much a global company.

Craig Powell, CEO of RF Biocidics

The company’s technology takes advantage of the inherent electrical charges that cause atoms to bond and form molecules, Powell said. Put a nut or seed in an electromagnetic field, and all the molecules within it start to spin as polar opposites chase each other.

“We reverse the magnetic field very, very quickly, so what happens is you get molecular rotation,” Powell explained. “That creates friction. That friction creates heat, and the heat is what is lethal.”

This heat is different from that used in most other technologies, such as gas dryers or even a kitchen oven. They heat from the outside in, which means it’s always hard to get the center cooked without burning the outside.

“With RF processing, because we operate at the molecular level, it heats evenly throughout,” Powell said. “The outside is operating at the same level that the inside is operating. It’s an even, much more controllable heat.”

The RF Biocidics machines will operate at whatever temperature is needed to kill insects at any stage of life and to destroy pathogens. Powell said the company can customize machines for each client, noting that it recently worked with a Southern California food importer and processor to treat 15 different potential contaminants.

To do research in its North Natomas lab, the company had its manufacturer produce working scale models of its machines. At one-tenth the size of an actual machine, the models look nearly as hefty as a double-cab pickup truck. They put the models on wheels so they can roll them out of storage and into the lab, depending on the model a client is considering.

The sales cycle for the machines tends to be long because each client wants demonstrations and data, Powell said. Once purchased, a machine takes another three to four months to manufacture. But it’s crucial that the equipment perform effectively each time to prevent foodborne illnesses. The food industry has had its share of problems in recent years.

“The number of recalls is higher than it’s ever been, in terms of frequency, and the severity of those recalls is actually greater as well,” Powell said. “An average recall now averages about $30 million in direct costs for the company. That would be attorney fees, disposal costs, PR firms, things like that. That is not indirect costs such as damage to the brand, the share price, loss of future revenue.”

With the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, Powell said, food companies are being held to a higher standard. Before, the system was primarily reactive, he said, responding when an illness or an outbreak was reported. But today, the first thing food regulators ask a company for is documentation that they had a system in place to prevent foodborne illnesses.

RF Biocidics’ machines allow the processor to provide real-time access to performance data and to generate custom reports on historical data, Powell said, so the regulator can see how the equipment has been functioning. This, however, is not the only factor that gives RF Biocidics a leg up in the marketplace, he added.

Consumer habits are also changing. They are looking for products that aren’t made or treated with chemicals. Prunes, for instance, are typically preserved with sorbate to prevent yeast and mold, Powell said, but RF Biocidics’ process kills yeast and mold without additives or preservatives.

Date companies have long used methyl bromide to rid their fruit of insects. RF Biocidics doesn’t, allowing the company to make inroads into the date market. Abu Dhabi’s Al Foah, the world’s largest producer of dates, entered into a strategic agreement with RF Biocidics in 2014, agreeing to market and promote the company’s technology in the Middle East.

“Dates are huge in the Middle East,” Powell said. “There’s a selection of them in the middle of every table. ... We have a tremendous opportunity there.”

Currently, Powell said, the company is focusing its RF technology on seeds, nuts, grains, dates and prunes, so it’s no small wonder that the company is headquartered in California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced. The state also is a major producer of prunes, walnuts and other specialty crops.

Sacramento sits at the nexus of agriculture, technology and academia, Powell said. RF Biocidics was founded in Vacaville but moved to Sacramento in 2014, a little more than a year after Powell took over as CEO. A graduate of Tokay High School in Lodi, he holds food science and MBA degrees from the University of California, Davis.

Perhaps the greatest obstacles to RF Biocidics’ growth, Powell said, are cost and the status quo.

“People always talk about farmers and their trucks,” Powell said. “If one farmer goes out to get a new truck, then the next thing you know, all his neighbors go out and get new trucks. ... It’s the same thing when it comes to equipment or technologies like ours, as well.

“They feel much, much better when the neighbors have all got it, so when you’re breaking through, when you’re a disruptive technology, that’s a challenge. They all want to know: Does it work? Is it safe? How do I mitigate risk associated with your technology?”

People always talk about farmers and their trucks. If one farmer goes out to get a new truck, then the next thing you know, all his neighbors go out and get new trucks. ... It’s the same thing when it comes to equipment or technologies like ours as well.

Craig Powell, CEO of RF Biocidics

They’re also concerned about costs, Powell said, because the profit margins in their industry are thin and there are limited dollars for investing in new equipment and improving facilities. It’s hard to find food processors who want to be early adopters because they don’t want to risk money on a technology that isn’t tried and true.

“Agriculture is a tough industry,” said Powell, who worked for companies that produced olives, tomatoes and lamb before coming to RF Biocidics. “Most of my career has been on the operations side of the food business. That capital budget you’re afforded, usually you’ve got $10 worth of projects for every dollar’s worth of budget that you have, so you’ve got to make sure that you get the biggest bang for your buck.”

These days, Powell said, he can point to a variety of clients who have seen the financial wisdom of converting to RF Biocidics machines. They have been adopted by customers as diverse as international food distributor Sesajal, based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and family-owned food importer, exporter and processor Torn & Glasser in Southern California.

An investment group, Boston-based Allied Minds, saw the commercial possibility of the radio-frequency technology developed at UC Davis, Powell said, and it formed RF Biocidics to make it a reality. The Sacramento-based company is one of more than 20 operations that Allied Minds has created to license and cultivate technologies that were discovered at universities.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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