Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) off-campus research centers are sometimes located in remote parts of the state, providing limited opportunity for others to know the scope of their work. In the “Get to Know Rutgers NJAES” series, we’ll take a look at these centers and find out what they do. The Food Innovation Center (FIC) is comprised of two facilities, FIC-South in Bridgeton and FIC-North in Piscataway. These centers provide New Jersey startup food companies with the resources they need to launch their products. Directors Michael duBois, Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC)-South and Bill Franke, FIC-North, provide us with an close up look at what goes on at the centers.
The “cold process” area allows for packaging of refrigerated, frozen or ambient food products. The facility utilizes a variety of technologies, all in a temperature-controlled environment. Natale Grande, President and CEO of The Flying Meatballs, center, packages gourmet meatballs with his staff.
Q. What types of research are conducted at your facilities?
The Food Innovation Center focuses on applied research in two areas – food formulation and process development, and consumer research. The former involves development of commercial food formulas and optimization of their process to ensure the highest level of taste, functional performance, package compatibility, and food safety. The latter, consumer research, involves conducting sensory evaluation and focus group testing to determine consumer acceptance and insights on how to improve the food product for better delivery of desired consumer benefits.
Q. Who are the support staff and the faculty that participate in research projects at the centers?
The Rutgers Food Innovation Center has two locations, Bridgeton and Piscataway. These two facilities, FIC-South and FIC-North, merged in 2012 to take full advantage of their synergies. FIC-North was formerly associated with the Center for Advanced Food Technology. Both locations of the Center are closely aligned with the Department of Food Science and the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health, as well as many other academic entities within Rutgers University. In addition, the Center has an extensive network of contacts throughout the food industry including academic, trade association, governmental, and corporate connections. The Director of FIC-North is Bill Franke and FIC-South is led by Michael duBois.
Q. In addition to research, what other activities are conducted at the centers?
FIC-North and FIC-South both provide facilitated processing for many diverse food production clients. Products produced at both sites are manufactured under FDA and USDA supervision, ensuring the suitability of manufactured products to enter the consumer and foodservice markets. Both facilities offer their clients technical mentoring in all the steps needed to advance food products from concept to commercialization. The production equipment is different at each site. FIC-South operates more as an “incubator,” meaning that a broader range of business development services is offered at this location. In addition to consumer research, the services offered include an extensive portfolio of training courses in diverse topics from food safety (HACCP) and food security to business basics and marketing. FIC-South also provides business mentoring, support for clients’ feasibility and strategic business planning, market research, and brand development. The staffs at both facilities are highly experienced food industry professionals, well equipped to advise clients with real-world solutions.
Q. What about highlights of some of the major research projects and their impact over the history of the facilities?
FIC-South has supported the entry into the U.S. market of several foreign companies, most notably Dr. Schär, a leading European, gluten-free baked goods company, which initially used the Food Incubation Center in Bridgeton, NJ, location as its prime manufacturing center through the early stages of its U.S. launch. Knowledge about maintaining a segregated gluten-free production environment has led to a number of other projects in this growing segment. FIC-South has ramped up its sensory testing capabilities, attracting many new clients. This facility is also becoming a major “incubator for incubators” – a collaborator for facilitating food business incubation start-ups in the U.S. and Europe. At FIC-South, there is a growing focus on the biopharma category with projects relating to creating food “vehicles” for testing and administration of new nutraceutical and pharma substances.
FIC-North is a major resource for clients conducting research on naturally derived aroma chemicals and for studies conducted for the Department of Defense on thermal processing of flexible packaged foods related to the Meals Ready to Eat program.
Q. What is unique about this research center compared to other experiment station research facilities?
Probably the diversity of clients as well as their product and processing types. Almost every type of food product has been, or is being, developed or commercially produced at these facilities. A few examples are meatballs, sauces of every type, baked goods, satay, snacks, medical foods, vegetables, condiments, soups, and various entrees. FIC-South is in the process of becoming a demonstration site for a new food safety monitoring and management system called CHEFS developed through a collaboration between ICertainty and the Walt Disney Company. FIC-South is the first such site in the consumer food product channel and is currently developing initiation and integration documents for this food safety management breakthrough.
Q. How does the research here benefit the people of New Jersey?
A significant part of FIC’s contribution has been in the growth of New Jersey’s economy through the “birthing” of new food businesses and the resulting increase in economic development and creation of jobs. The Center has also worked closely with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enhance the nutritional level of the public school breakfast and lunch programs. It’s also led the creation of new meals with exceptional nutritional profiles that are, at the same time, highly acceptable to the kids of New Jersey schools. This program will be expanded through additional channels of distribution.
Q. What is the best accomplishment that has come from the center?
From its early days, the Food Innovation Center has become an increasingly trusted source of information on regulatory affairs, especially in the areas of food safety and protection. The Center has mentored countless businesses through early and mid-term growth, many of which have “graduated” to co-packers with greater production capacity or to their own facility located in the State of New Jersey. The Center is pleased to be part of the evolution of such businesses from the stage of preliminary concept all the way to full-scale commercial production. In the past 12 months, there have been over 1,500 prospective client conversations, 117 firms have completed and returned Client Interest Questionnaires (to collect details about their food concept and to create a baseline for continuous assessment of economic impacts), and 35 have become clients of the Center.