How Nice Fruit Achieved the Impossible: Fresh Frozen Fruit

How Nice Fruit Achieved the Impossible: Fresh Frozen Fruit

By Susana Gonzalez Ruiz

Nice Fruit is an example of how universities can be the source of revolutionary innovations that have a positive impact on society.

When we talk about innovation, we usually think of companies and R&D departments. However, companies are often only the culmination of long-term projects that start with universities. Research groups are an important source of innovation, but companies often ignore this. The Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, UPC), ranked 37th in Engineering in the U.S. News Best Global University Rankings, is aware of this lack of university-business communication.

As Esther Real, UPC’s Vice-President for Knowledge Transfer, tells me during a conversation, research groups need support to request and obtain patents, but universities lack investment capacity. Research groups could become the R&D Department of companies, but companies only want the finished product. It is for this reason that the UPC also collaborates with investors willing to take risks and turn ideas into revolutionary projects that eventually will materialize into businesses. This is the case of Nice Fruit.

According to José María Roger, President of Nice Fruit, it all began during an informal conversation in 2003 between the UPC professor, José María Nacenta, and the R&D investor group Fenoexit. Nacenta described his project to prove that it was possible to freeze fruit without breaking the cell structure – something that had never been achieved before.

Why was this so important? Fruits are limited by two factors: the optimal harvest time and their geographical origin. Although there has been a significant improvement in goods transport, fruits still have to be collected unripe to be transported long distances without rotting. This means that the fruit doesn’t have enough time to absorb nutrients and sugars from the tree.

Nice Fruit - Figure 1

The other option is to freeze the fruit, as is done with fish. However, unlike fish, fruits contain around 80-90% water and it is in this liquid where nutrients and sugars are located. When the fruit is frozen, water turns into ice and expands (increasing in volume), thus breaking the cell structure. When thawing the fruit, water escapes through these fractures, taking with it all the nutritional value.

Nice Fruit Plant Cell - Figure 2

For many years, universities in different countries have made large investments to develop a method to freeze fruit without breaking the cell structure. All attempts had failed and they concluded that it was impossible to do. José María Nacenta was convinced that this was possible, but he didn’t have enough time and resources to prove it. Luckily, Fenoexit saw potential in Nacenta’s claims and decided to invest in the project.

After 8 years of research, they found a 100% physical process that allowed them to freeze the fruit without breaking its structure. To do this, they created a machine that processes up to 10 kilos of peeled, cut and processed fruit per hour. Between 2010 and 2012, they created the company, Nice Fruit, and obtained the patent with an innovative label, which protects the process and the product for 20 years. Meanwhile, a new investor group, Cutting’s, was incorporated in the project and contributed with their know-how in the marketing of fruit.

In 2013, Nice Fruit created a machine that processed up to 300 kilos (nowadays it reaches 1500 kilos), turning the company into an industrial business. Thereafter, their target was the establishment of processing facilities in fruit-producer countries and the distribution of the final product (peeled and cut frozen fruit) around the world through a network of exclusive distributors.

From their manufacturing plants in Spain, the Philippines, and soon Mexico and Ecuador, Nice Fruit reaches markets like Finland, Sweden, Norway, France, Ireland, USA, Japan and Hong Kong. In northern Canada, where some roads are closed from September to August because of the snow, Nice Fruit has made it possible for people to have access to fruit all year round.

“But the Nice Fruit frozen fruit has other unexpected indirect benefits”, tells José María Roger.
The price of fruit changes during the year depending on the season. During the months of optimal harvest time, a period of fruit abundance, prices plummet. And, conversely, during the months of scarcity and lower fruit quality, prices soar. Nice Fruit stabilizes prices by buying fruits above the market price during their optimum months (when fruit reaches its lowest price). When the fruit season comes to an end and prices rise again, they simply stop buying.

Nice Fruit Price - Figure 3

Furthermore, Nice Fruit helps local farmers by selling their products abroad. This is the case of Ecuador, where farmers are not able to export all their strawberry production, which stays fresh only a few hours. Thanks to their freezing process, local farmers can sell their whole production. In addition, Nice Fruit cooperates with the government of Ecuador by allowing the transfer of know-how in production techniques from Spanish agricultural companies to Ecuadorian farmers. Thus, all parties benefit.

We have seen how an idea born in a university, through the support of an R&D investor group and other partners, has not only led to a revolutionary invention, but it has become a company that improves the quality of life of both consumers and farmers. The conclusion can only be the need for a greater collaboration among researchers, universities, companies and investors for the progress of the whole society.

I will conclude this article explaining that in May this year, Nice Fruit was selected by the National Restaurant Association to receive the FABI Awards, in the framework of the NRA Show 2015 (Chicago), being the 8th award received in the last 12 months.

Photo credits: Nice Fruit
Figures credits: Susana Gonzalez Ruiz

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