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From its beginnings at Georgia Tech’s business incubator, ScanTech hopes to change produce safety

These blackberries were harvested at the same time and come from the same lot. The ones on the top were untreated; the ones on the bottom were treated with ScanTech Sciences’ patented electronic cold pasteurization process.(Photo courtesy of ScanTech)

ATLANTA — It began with an idea to improve Homeland Security, but ScanTech Sciences Inc. now offers the next great hope in the battle against produce pests and pathogens.

In what was once a blighted area of midtown Atlanta, there now stands a complex of gleaming high-rises, a bustling development district — Technology Square — affiliated with the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Advanced Technology Development Center, here, is the birthplace of ScanTech and serves as an incubator for forward-looking businesses of all description.

ScanTech Vice President of Operations Chip Starns sits in an office, looking out a window at the hustle below and talking about the opportunities and challenges of marketing a developing and often misunderstood technology: electronic cold pasteurization, also known as ECP.

Mr. Starns splits time between ScanTech Sciences’ Atlanta location (the original parent company, ScanTech Holdings LLC was founded here in 2002 and is still headquartered at the ATDC) and its headquarters in Houston, established in 2009. He understands that people are skeptical of food products treated with any kind of radiation. His mission is to explain and demonstrate the different between electronic cold pasteurization and traditional methods of irradiation.

It is a public relations battle to be sure — but science and government seem to be squarely on the side of ECP.

ScanTech Holdings originated in Atlanta, birthed by the Georgia Tech incubator system, but other areas now recognize the technology’s potential.

In January 2010, the state-funded Texas Emerging Technology Fund awarded $2 million to ScanTech Sciences in a partnership with Texas A&M University.

“ScanTech’s technology will help improve food safety while creating jobs and growing the economy in the Rio Grande Valley,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at the time of the grant.

“E-beam technology is radiation, but it’s not gamma: It’s generated radiation” utilizing a focused concentration of electrons to kill pathogens, Dr. Craig Nessler, director of Texas AgriLife Research at Texas A&M, told The Produce News. “I think people will come to accept a certain amount of irradiated food. It’s a win-win: You could get rid of human pathogens and improve phytosanitation, zap bugs and spores so that particular imported material — particularly produce — would be a lot cleaner.”

ScanTech Sciences sees great potential in the ever-increasing flow of Mexican produce through Texas ports of entry into the United States — and also sees opportunity in making those true two-way gateways, Mr. Starns said.

For example, this summer, for the first time in decades, Georgia growers were able to ship peaches to Mexico after agreeing to negotiate the torturous tangle of protocols and practices. Had electronic cold pasteurization been part of the picture at the outset, those negotiations could have been resolved in minutes, not years.

“We’ve just created some growth markets for farmers and industries,” Mr. Starns said. “We can tell the Georgia and South Carolina peach industry we just created an export market” without the need to jump through endless regulatory hoops.

ScanTech’s proprietary and patented ECP process is fairly simple, though it was the result of more than 10 years of research and product development originally aimed at helping Homeland Security officials find better ways to scan cargo.

The technology is the brainchild of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dolan Falconer Jr., who helms ScanTech Holdings along with President Henry Sutherlin and Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Engineering & Manufacturing Rocky Starns. The company owns 13 patents for its advanced electron beam accelerator and X-ray technologies, which are used for cargo and baggage scanning, medical treatment, medical-equipment sterilization and waste sanitation, gas effluent purification, and the manufacture of plastic and rubber products.

It did not take the ScanTech team long to realize its technologies might have applications in agriculture and food processing as well.

With the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control virtually in its backyard, the company was well aware of numbers from that agency that show as much as 25 percent of the world’s food supply is lost annually to pests and bacteria — not to mention the food-borne ailments that strike 76 million Americans annually and cost the U.S. economy more than $33 billion each year.

For foodstuffs, ScanTech Sciences’ STS-10/20 electron beam system accelerates electrons to near the speed of light through highly conductive copper housings above and below conveyors. The beams penetrate deeply enough to kill pests and pathogens — and provide remarkable increases in shelf life — while keeping radiation exposure far below U.S. and world standards for foodstuffs.

Berries treated with ECP resist mold as much as 21 days longer than untreated fruit. Ripe tomatoes can be held on the vine for up to five days versus 48 hours, resulting in a more flavorful product at market. There is no perceptible change in taste or appearance.

While there are other ECP facilities in operation, Mr. Starns said, “There are not many in the world. It’s emerging, but not here yet. We are one of the few companies in the world that patent and design our own systems.”

Mr. Starns is convinced that he can make the public and the industry understand the difference between the e-beam pasteurization process and other methods that use heavy metals like cobalt as a fuel source.

While the company’s patented technologies have been thoroughly vetted by peers and governmental agencies, “We’re hoping to do studies that mean something to growers, the industry and consumers,” Mr. Starns said. With the potential savings ECP represents, “even in percentages, it’s millions of dollars.”