P^3: The next generation of food packaging
The traditional industry has difficulty surviving economically in the modern world of constant development. In contrast, the academic community is eager to leave theory behind, act, and create new products. This is the story of the P3 Consortium, whose success promises a new generation of smart plastic packaging.
In March 2016, the P3 Consortium that was established concluded its operations. Its name was created from the three words that defined the field it operates in – Plastics, Polymers, and Packaging – and from the experience that when companies work together in a consortium, their production increases exponentially. P3 had an unusual start: It began from an agreement, by Academia, and the Israel Innovation Authority (at that time, the Office of the Chief Scientist), of a traditional industry’s needs. It set out to help the Israeli plastics industry cope with changes in the global market by developing a unique range of innovative technologies and improved products for varied applications, along with improved, smart packaging for food that could lengthen the shelf life of the food and prevent the growth of bacteria and other germs.
Now, approximately seven years later, the success is apparent: Some of the companies that were in the consortium have already progressed to various stages of product development, the only challenge remaining - attractive pricing. From the innovation standpoint, they reached their goals:
Lengthening the shelf life of packaged products from the moment they leave the factory. This ultimate achievement is accomplished when new technology becomes an inseparable part of a traditional industry.
Onward, Hand in Hand
MAGNET consortiums enable manufacturing companies and research institutions to collaborate on developing generic technologies in areas which are of importance to the global market and which provide the Israeli industry a competitive advantage. Since the technology being developed is related specifically to infrastructure, companies in the same market can share knowledge and cooperate in a unique way that would otherwise be entirely unimaginable.
Ilan Peled, Director of the Technological Infrastructure Division, who is responsible for the consortiums at the Israel Innovation Authority, explains: “Consortiums are a complex issue. The difficulty stems mainly from three factors:
1. The return on investment (ROI) always takes a long time, and not every company has the necessary vision, patience, and long-term financial capability.
2. A consortium focuses on cutting-edge technologies, and it’s hard to promote these kinds of technologies in the traditional industry.
3. Working in a consortium requires collaboration – even with competitors. Without finding the golden middle, it’s impossible to move forward.”
In the end, collaboration, which is the heart and soul of the whole enterprise, is always achieved. As evidence, Peled points to the only poster that decorates the wall of his office. It depicts one of the past consortiums, starring two corporations that were stated opponents and competitors – Scitex and Indigo. Both overcame their competitive natures to cooperate, and both were rewarded for it. “If they could work together, anyone can,” he says.
“The first incentive program for innovation in the traditional plastics industry came from Professor Miriam Erez of the Technion,” Peled continues. “In general, you could say that our job in the Israel Innovation Authority requires a reactive approach to the industry needs, not a proactive approach. But Professor Erez said that industry executives don’t always envision what they will need, and she wanted to do something about it. She persuaded me, and we decided to organize a conference for the plastics industry to identify and understand its needs.
“Our staff gathered all the representatives of "Kibbutz" industries that dealt with plastics. We told them about MAGNET and asked them each to tell what they want, what direction they’d like to see development take. We wrote everything down on a big board, and it filled up even before the break. We concluded that there were many needs and that two categories predominated: plastic packaging and plastic related to water piping. We then had two more meetings, each one focusing exclusively on one of the two areas. In the end, the group coalesced around the objective of smart food packaging.
“Traditional industries,” Peled explains, “confront many market difficulties, including small profit margins and the lack of a successful R&D culture. Connecting them to the consortium’s wealth of knowledge, which it accumulated thanks to the collaboration between academic researchers and companies of various sizes, is a significant accomplishment.”
Dr. Anita Vaxman of Carmel Olefins, who was the consortium’s CEO, says: “The intent was to give a ‘push’ to Israel’s traditional plastics industry so that it could improve its ability to cope and compete. The packaging industry makes up the largest percentage of the plastics market, and Israel is very active in it. So the decision was to help the plastics industry deal with the new demands and challenges of innovation in the global market.
“On the one hand,” Dr. Vaxman continues, “we have a traditional manufacturer who wants to progress and be competitive, but can’t do it without a research and development department. On the other hand, there are people in academia who can develop theories from here to tomorrow and publish papers – but who are also eager to do something useful and practical. The solution is partnering academia with industry. A consortium brings satisfaction to all sides and bridges all worlds.”
Overcoming Food-Borne Bacteria
In the case of P3, it was decided to focus on developing generic technologies to control the migration of additives in a polymer matrix, since uncontrolled additive migration means the loss of desired activity over time.
The Academia Members Included:
Leading scientists in the fields of chemistry, microbiology, chemical engineering, and food engineering from every institution active in biotechnology:
- Ben-Gurion University- Prof. Moshe Gottlieb, Prof. Yossi Kost
- Bar-Ilan University - Prof. Ehud Banin and Prof. Shlomo Margel
- The Technion: Prof. Yachin Cohen, Prof. Moshe Narkis, Prof. Hezi Kashi, and Prof. Ester Segal (the scientific leader of the consortium)
- Shenkar: Prof. Amos Ophir, Prof. Ana Dotan, and Prof. Shmuel Kenig
The Business Members Included:
Leading companies from every step-in plastic product manufacturing (raw materials, concentrates for plastics, sheeting and packaging, non-woven fabric, coating processes, printing, and lamination): Carmel Olefins, Carmel Resins, Tosaf, Dor Film, StePac, Saifun, Avgol, Plasto Sac, and Hanita Coatings.
The members of P3 focused on two major issues in food packaging:
1. To lengthen food shelf-life by preventing decay and decomposition that is caused by wrapping it in plastic bags.
2. Preventing proliferation of bacteria caused by closing food in plastic bags and creating an excellent breeding ground for bacteria proliferation. (Food on a shelf doesn’t get contaminated with bacteria. The bacteria are already there, inside, and they only respond to environmental conditions).
“At MAGNET, it’s always a matter collaboration. Even the most respected researchers and scientists, find it important to participate and experiment. The consortium is a tremendous opportunity for them as well,” says Peled. “The work done here is very multi-disciplinary. Consortiums need chemists, biologists, physicists, and experts in food engineering. A consortium is a place where they all can engage in dialogue. Every person can contribute to the work plan. It was a great pleasure for us to see how ideas passed from one to the other, naturally – from the physicist to the biologist, and from the biologist to the chemist, with the companies and professionals all co-operating. They all understand when they add value, when not, and where they can contribute. This was the nature of things in the consortium.”
Dr. Vaxman explains: “There are several areas of research that are part of the ‘smart plastic packaging.' One is how to extend the food shelf life. The goal is not just to use well-known materials, but to develop new materials while controlling how quickly the active anti-bacterial agents are released. Our vision was to develop generic technologies to control the relative movement of additives within a polymer.”
In the last two years, P^3 members converged around the most practical solutions – and there is a success! The development of plastic films that have shown a long delay of bacterial growth in the food products they wrap. “The consortium is considered a great success, and it has had many achievements,” says Dr. Vaxman. “One of them was the excellent collaboration between academia and industry. Over the years we developed an incredible spirit of cooperation, which is a tremendous achievement in and of itself.”
Dr. Vaxman says in conclusion: “The joint work also resulted in many patents. As time went on, other local industries showed interest in collaborating with us on further development, and by the time the consortium came to an end, we had discovered several possibilities for generic technology. Now they will be moving on to the next stage of production, the phase of Pilot projects and Testing with end-users is being organized. We already know that one of the lines of research will result in a final marketable product.
“At the last meeting, after the discussion that summarized the consortium’s work, we all remained in the hall for a long time, even after everything had already been said and the consortium’s activity was over. Why? Because it had been a success and saying goodbye was hard. We hoped we’d be meeting again next time, in the next consortium.”