Thursday, July 7, 2022

Veritide seeing the light on bacteria

An “optical beast” is being developed in Christchurch to detect food bacteria instantly. Tim Fulton reports.

The physical evidence of Veritide’s makeshift office and lab points to this project being powered by brains as much as budget.

Camped on the fringe of the Canterbury University campus, Craig Tuffnell, Simon Choi and James Boulton are detecting bacteria on supplied pieces of ANZCO meat.

By putting light of a certain wavelength on the bacteria they are creating fluorescence, whereby light energy is absorbed and re-radiated at a different wavelength.

From this they can create a quick and accurate picture of pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter and E coli.

The bacteria loading was calculated using techniques similar to those used in a CT scanner, Veritide chief executive Craig Tuffnell said.

Veritide started as the developer of the Ceeker, a bacterial spore detector for “weaponised bio-hazards” such as anthrax.

Demand was disappointing, so a couple of years ago the company moved into food safety, developing a device to detect food pathogens.

The Canterbury University spin-off company got in touch with Choi, one of its recent physics graduates, who had been working as an intern for ANZCO on lasers to destroy food bugs.

That idea was classed commercially uneconomic but Choi was able to turn to detecting bacteria loadings in food. ANZCO has kept in touch with Veritide so it can be ready to grab a commercial advantage.

Tuffnell sees instant detection of food bacteria as a compelling investment, given the cost of food-borne illness.

In the United States food poisoning kills an average of about 4000 people annually and puts about 200,000 in hospital.

The US also discards about $1 billion of spoiled, inedible beef annually.

Mindful of this, New Zealand meat companies spend a lot of time and money running labs, swabbing and growing bacteria to keep them in check.

Still, it could take two to five days to produce results, Tuffnell said.

“They’ll do a swab and if they get a positive result they’ll go ‘right, we need to do some more’. But that’s already three days later, so they’ve had to keep the meat chilled, and what’s happened to the bacteria in that time?”

There’s also room for error in swabbing processing surfaces. Given it takes three days to get the results, the surface will have been reused and potentially contaminated by more food before the results are available to know if there’s a problem.

ANZCO, aware of the gain in eliminating problems at the source, is allowing Veritide to test the technology at its plants.

The tech start-up on Creyke Rd hopes to rake in up to $1.7 million to advance, moving from random sampling to faecal detection. The latter process would allow carcases to be assessed as they moved down a processing chain.

The company has disclosed commitments of about $700,000 from interested backers but the next challenge is to sell it to more processors, including the seafood and dairy industries.

Some of that validation may not be far away, as the developers pack their kit into boxes for reassembly at a lab at Lincoln University.

Tuffnell is aware of how much is at stake in the next stage.

“You know, you can make the best piece of technology but it’s completely unusable and it will never be accepted so really, half the battle is making sure the customer can use it and get sensible results for themselves,” he said.

Helpfully the patented technology has a secondary use as a non-invasive diabetes detector.

It can be directed on skin to reveal glycated collagen, revealing the process of glucose bonding to collagen.

The method is also useful for meat research and development because bacteria have to be separated from collagen in the detection process.

Connections like these helped to reveal how bacteria interacted with a carcase, Tuffnell said. 

Veritide was named last year as one of the top five rising stars in New Zealand.

Its biohazard device reliably detects bacteria and spores. Founded on research initiated in the United States and developed at the University of Canterbury, the device has been sold as a hand-held anthrax detection device for first responders.

Deloitte’s and NZ Trade and Enterprise’s rising star awards complement the Deloitte Fast 50. The top five rising star companies are recognised as early-stage, innovative, high-potential companies.

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