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Ligar’s nanotechnology revolutionising the food industry

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Hamilton company Ligar’s journey to create a world-first commercial molecular filtration solution to revolutionise the food and beverage industry had it recognised as a finalist in the Commercialisation Impact Award in the 10th annual KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards. 

The KiwiNet Awards celebrate the scientific discoveries being successfully commercialised within New Zealand’s universities, Crown Research Institutes and other research organisations and their impact on Aotearoa and beyond. 

Ligar’s revolutionary systems are used by companies in the complex natural product industry, such as food and beverage, flavours and aromas, and health and therapeutics. Its unique filtration technology uses molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) to target specific molecules, enabling companies to improve their products by extracting or reducing flavours or components. 

Imagine drinking a low-caffeine coffee that tastes as good as the real deal or sampling a perfectly balanced wine that happens to be made with smoked-tainted grapes. These are just some of many remarkable outputs becoming a reality with Ligar’s technology.

Ligar’s Chief Commercial Officer Nidhie Kumar

Ligar’s chief commercial officer Nidhie Kumar says Ligar is focused on helping improve food and beverage sensory experiences. “Clients can use our technology to restore damaged beverages, make juices sweeter without adding sweetener, or collect desirable high-value compounds for products, such as bioactive botanicals.” 

The science and tech 

Ligar has rigorously honed the science over the last seven years and uses its proven MIP technology to enable nano-level molecular targeting at scale. The result is that the right molecules are found and targeted with precision, speed and quality outcomes. 

Ligar’s world-first commercial systems can selectively capture and extract high-value molecules or unwanted contaminants that may only be present at the part-per-billion level in liquids. The systems can easily and cost-effectively process large volumes of liquid – solving problems existing technologies don’t address. 

Wine industry 

In the current climate crisis, the technology is a game-changer for the North American wine industry, which is increasingly having to deal with smoke-tainted grapes impacted by wildfires that get out of control dues to wind, high temperatures and drought conditions. 

The 2020 wildfire season was the largest recorded in California’s modern history, scorching more than 1 million acres and costing the wine industry approximately US$10 billion. 

Whilst the anticipated rise in wildfires due to the increased frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves is devastating; it will mean a growth in demand for Ligar’s solutions. 

Kumar says the technology has other wine applications, and Ligar is currently working with an industry partner to develop further solutions for other uses. 

“For example, Brettanomyces taint is a spoilage yeast that imparts undesirable flavours and aromas. Our technology can remove the compounds responsible for this taint from the wine.” 

Food and beverages 

Ligar is also exploring other commercial applications for its nanotechnology, including flavour modification in beverages and alternative methods for reducing caffeine in coffee. 

“We are looking at some sensory characteristics that will allow companies to be more in control of the flavour balance. The challenge for traditional filtration and extraction methods is getting the selectivity that our technology can get. Also, the ability to target the specific compounds responsible for unwanted characteristics without otherwise affecting things like the flavour balance, the colour and the aroma,” Kumar says. 

Cannabis processing 

Ligar’s molecular filtration systems are also being used to refine cannabis processing systems, and its team are working with a Canadian partner in a pilot-scale trial. 

“The idea behind that is to extract the cannabinoids from the cannabis extracts, which aims to cut out a couple of the steps in the current process that cause bottlenecks. So, it’s going to make that process more efficient, allowing higher throughput and lower energy costs,” Kumar says. The system 

Ligar’s molecular filtration systems can be easily implemented by customers and incorporated into standard processing platforms, Kumar says. 

Regulatory approvals 

Ligar has achieved United States FDA, Canadian and New Zealand regulatory approvals for the technology that are intended for use in the processing of foods. Commercial use in Canada has just started. 

The research commercialisation journey 

Ligar’s research commercialisation journey began in 2011 with Wintec-based chemist Dr Miruna Petcu’s interest in developing commercial applications for MIPs. Teaming up with WaikatoLink, the University of Waikato’s commercialisation company, in 2013, early projects were helped along the way with two rounds of PreSeed investment from KiwiNet. As a result, initial applications of the technology were then developed to the proof-of-concept stage, which led to the formation of spin-out company Ligar. 

Today, Ligar has a 22-strong team led by managing director Aiden Tapping, and commercialisation is well underway in wine, cannabis processing and other industries. Long-standing staff members include chief operations officer Rebecca Ericksen, who has worked with Ligar since its inception and was previously in Wintec’s technology transfer office. In addition, chief commercial officer Nidhie Kumar joined the Ligar team in 2017 from WaikatoLink. 

Ligar has a commercialisation partner in the United States that will onboard providers to deliver the system to the wineries in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. 

Ligar is also looking to expand its team to keep up with the growing demands for its technology. 

Ligar continues to work with research organisations such as the University of Waikato, University of Adelaide, University of Auckland, AUT University, Riddet Institute and Scion to continue to develop its platform.

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