With technology first designed for NASA, Durham-based Induction Food Systems wins slot in accelerator

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Durham-headquartered Induction Food Systems is one of five U.S.-based startups selected to participate in the Shell Gamechanger Accelerator™, which is a program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The program was open to “promising early-stage cleantech startups with resources to accelerate product commercialization while de-risking investment,” according to a statement from the accelerator.

The technology behind Induction Food Systems was first developed in response to a challenge from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to company co-founder and CEO Francesco Aimone.

The challenge: How would you successfully feed people in space?

“It turns out that when you think about heating a flowing fluid in space, in a zero-g environment, you solve some of the challenges of heating food here on earth, too,” said Aimone in an interview with WRAL TechWire.

The initial concept came when thinking about the future of space, with potential lunar or Martian colonization, Aimone explained.  “We’ll have to keep fluids there at some point,” said Aimone.

The technology was developed with SBIR funding by the company’s co-founder, Dr. George Sadler, Ph.D., who also serves as the company’s chief science officer, beginning in the mid-2000s.  By 2016, the two co-founders had begun to collaborate on other projects, and identified a viable path forward to commercialize the technology developed in response to that NASA challenge.

The company entered the inaugural Techstars Farm-to-Fork accelerator program based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2018.

“We were more concept at that point, with a little funding, a little investment, and we gained access to a heck of a network,” said Aimone.  “We evaluated where we sat in the market, and how to go about our business.”

Now, the company has raised about $300,000 and is in the process of installing its equipment in manufacturing centers in the United States, including for some Fortune 500 clients.

“As we look at how the market is going to adopt technologies like ours, we know we can’t just electrify technology, we also have to improve processes at the same time,” said Aimone.  “Our goal is to be that go-to solution for manufacturers,” he added.  “It’s about impact, and doing things better, because we need new solutions if we are going to successfully transition our manufacturing base to a new energy economy.”


“The way we heat flowing fluids at industrial scale really hasn’t changed much in more than 100 years,” said Aimone.

Traditionally, heating systems use steam to heat in a method that Aimone describes as “outside-in.”

Instead, the technology that is in the process of being commercialized by Induction Food Systems, uses in-line mixing and blending, in the process, maximizing heating surface area and fluid turbulence.

“Our technology uses magnetic induction to power middle-out fluid heating,” said Aimone.

The company uses electromagnetic energy to heat a specially designed food-contact approved applicator that rests inside a stainless steel processing tube.  According to the company’s website, this “magnetic energy causes electrons in the applicator to resonate, generating heat that gets transferred to the fluid as it flows through the pipe.”

Aimone noted that this technology improves the heat transfer rate by a factor of 8, or even 10, compared to traditional methods.

The system constructed by the company is both scalable, precise, and efficient, said Aimone, and can best be thought of as a ‘middle-out’ system, which can be used for a wide range of fluid foods, and for beverages.

“This approach allows us to heat more effectively than conventional heat exchangers, avoid fouling, and increase plant uptime by bringing product flows to target temperature 85% faster than conventional tubular heat exchangers from a cold start,” the company’s website states.

“We know the world is going electric, and we have one of the few solutions that can electrify thermal processes at an industrial scale,” said Aimone.

The company plans to leverage its participation in the accelerator, which gives access to the state-of-the-art research facilities and up to $250,000 in non-dilutive funding to the five selected companies, to fully commercialize its systems.

The funding enables the company to conduct even further research and development, said Aimone.

“We’re taking the first steps of how to commercialize this,” he said.  “The GCxN program is going to help us do this more efficiently, and optimize the designs that we already have in order to make us more effective.”

Aimone noted that the additional research time and access to “high-performance computational assets,” or supercomputers, gives the company the opportunity “to advance a very complex mathematical model that can help us better understand how electromagnetics can be used to heat flowing fluids.”

And that will yield even greater opportunities to install its systems into the country’s manufacturers, said Aimone, “to make existing production lines more efficient, more effective.”