PITTSFIELD — Dan White believes his company has found a solution to a problem that is costing the peanut industry $3 billion a year.
His startup, Clean Crop Technologies, has developed a method of using ionized gases to eliminate a potent carcinogen known as aflatoxin from peanuts before they are sold, which can extend the popular snack foods shelf life.
White's presentation of the company's formula and his firm's aspirations led a three-judge panel on Thursday to award Clean Crop Technologies the $25,000 first-place prize in the second Berkshire Manufacturing Innovation Challenge conducted by North Adams-based small-business incubator Lever. Four firms selected from an initial pool of 18 entrants participated in the challenge's finals, which took place at Berkshire Community College's Hawthorne Hall. The challenge began in October.
WheelEqual, which makes products designed to provide wheelchair users with greater independence, received the runner-up prize from the three-judge panel, an award that didn't contain monetary compensation. Each finalist gave a short "pitch-style" presentation on their concepts before answering questions posed by the panel of judges.
White, who has lived in Chesterfield for the past three years, said Clean Crop Technology plans to use the $25,000 it received in seed money to perform analytical testing to obtain regulatory clearance for it's proprietary formula. Clean Crop hasn't had the capital to pay for those tests, said White, the company's CEO.
"We're going to put it toward that once we get our two prototypes built," White said, referring to the testing. "That's going to be the final step before we can actually go to market and start selling it."
Clean Crop has developed a "dry sterilization process," a proprietary system in which an electric charge turns regular air into ionized nitrogen and oxygen that can remove contaminants from food items, White said.
"They have the ability to remove a whole bunch of contaminants from aflatoxins to bacteria, yeasts and molds, including things like salmonella and E. coli," said White, who has over 16 years of experience working in agricultural supply chains. "Then in the process of treatment they lose that charge so those ionized gases revert back to regular air so they don't leave any harmful residues."
The three-judge panel included Perri Petricca, the CEO of Petricca Industries of Pittsfield; Pat Begrowicz, the president of Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee; and Liz Roberts, the former CEO of Valley Ventures, a small-business incubator based in the Pioneer Valley.
Speaking for himself, not the panel, Petricca said that based on its presentation, Clean Crop Technologies appeared to be further along in the development of its product than the three other finalists.
"In my personal opinion, they had the clearest path for the use of the funds and the path to success," Petricca said. "They did a nice job connecting the dots."
Geri-Safe, which makes innovative devices that allow senior citizens to age in place, and Surf6Motion, which makes a device that makes it easier to track motion, were the two other finalists. All four finalists said they were interested in manufacturing their products in the Berkshires.
The winner of Lever's first manufacturing innovation challenge last winter, United Aircraft Technologies of Troy, N.Y., went on to receive an additional $50,000 for development when the company was selected as one of four gold-level winners at the MassChallenge accelerator program's competition in Boston last fall. The company is developing a lightweight smart fastener for aircraft that is designed to improve fuel economy and simplify maintenance.
The company's CEO, Eva Rhysing, provided Thursday's finalists with an update on the firm's progress and urged them to to keep pursuing their ideas.
"I was said no to many, many times," she said. "But I took no as a delayed yes."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-496-6224.
This story has been modified to correct Dan White's last name.