Trinity’s Senoptica to launch optical sensor for packaging

Smart sensors will improve food safety and cut waste

Hermetically sealed packaging known as MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) is widely used to keep products such as meat, bread and bagged salads fresh. But it has an Achilles heel – leakage – caused by poor sealing and packaging defects. When this happens a product can spoil, creating waste or, even worse, a potential food safety hazard. It is not practical for manufacturers or retailers to keep tabs on millions of MAP-bagged products, but a soon-to-be-launched intelligent optical sensor from Trinity College campus company, Senoptica Technologies, may be about to change that.

"Our sensor is groundbreaking because it's printed into the packaging and can test a full product run without any destruction," says chief executive, Brendan Rice. "At present, products are sample tested at the point of production and, in most cases, these tests are carried out on less than 1 per cent of the packs produced. As such these tests represent only one point in time and the packs are destroyed during the testing process."

MAP is based around the finely balanced use of gases to preserve colour, taste and nutrients and slow down deterioration. Senoptica’s UV-activated sensors will indicate the gas concentration levels within the pack making it easy to check if they’re still okay. For example, if the oxygen level in a pack of minced meat falls below a certain level the meat will go brown and will have to be removed from sale.

“Our technology is disruptive because it is non-destructive and can assess every single pack in real time at any point in the supply chain throughout the entire life of the pack,” Rice says. “We are presently doing trials with beta customers and expect to have the product commercially available in Q3 2019.”


Technology development

Senoptica was set up in July this year but its technology has been in development by Prof Rachel Evans of the school of Chemistry and Amber (the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science centre at Trinity College) since 2013. Funding from Enterprise Ireland was used to assess potential commercial applications for the sensor and it was moved from concept to industrial prototype by research fellow, Steve Comby, a specialist in the development of luminescent probes for imaging and sensing.

Senoptica will make its money in three ways: by selling its sensors and providing the inline scanners and hand-held devices that do the checking. Rice says the company will not make the devices itself but will link up with a manufacturing partner.

Senoptica’s technology also has applications in the medical devices, biotechnology and electronics industries but its initial focus will be on the global food packaging market. “Food waste, faulty packs and resulting product litigation create significant costs for food manufacturers and retailers, and it is estimated that around 2 per cent of all MAP packs sold are faulty,” Rice says. “This equates to nearly 100 million faulty packs annually in the UK chilled meat market alone.”

Brendan Rice is no stranger to the food sector. He has worked in the industry for 16 years in marketing roles with big name brands such as Hovis, Bisto, Paxo and Chivers. “I was responsible for business portfolios worth over £500 million a year and sales and marketing budgets of over £10 million a year and innovation was part of my brief,” he says. “I led the development and launch of the world’s first loaf baked without a crust – Hovis Invisible Crust. I was introduced to Senoptica by Enterprise Ireland and was attracted by the innovative nature of the idea, the fact that it addressed the significant problem of food waste and its global scaling opportunities.”

Investment in the business to date has been in the order of €400,000 which has come primarily from Enterprise Ireland and technology fund, Atlantic Bridge Capital. The company will be spun out once a licensing agreement has been finalised with Trinity College.