Lund company extends the life of plant cuttings and cut roses
Why do some grasses survive the winter while others do not? When researchers at Lund University examined the properties of plants, they made discoveries that are now the foundation of the Lund company Optifreeze. The company is now taking its first steps out into the world with its unique methods for getting plant cuttings and cut flowers to live longer.
In Optifreeze's premises in Gastelyckan, the contrasts are striking – shiny stainless machines and bottles of nutrients are interspersed with colorful cut roses. Experiments are underway here to find the best ways to preserve cut flowers so that their beauty lasts as long as possible once they reach consumers. The work goes beyond simple things like water and nutrients – it is instead a complicated process where the plants are treated with vacuum impregnation and electrical pulses to create more sustainable plant cuttings and cut flowers.
It all started with Professor Petr Dejmek and his team at Lund University’s Department of Food Technology, Engineering and Nutrition http://www.food.lth.se/ researching why some grasses survive the winter while others do not.
‑ “We discovered that it has to do with their sugar content,” explains Ulf Hagman, CEO of Optifreeze. “This led to the development of methods for treating products like spinach and lettuce to strengthen their resistance to freezing.”
With the help of people like Federico Gomez of the Department of Food Technology, Engineering and Nutrition, Petr Dejmek was able to develop a method to improve the freezing properties of products. This is done using two techniques. The first step is vacuum impregnation, where you replace the air in the product with a nutrient solution consisting of natural sugars by exposing the product to low pressure and vacuum. Different plant varieties require different treatments. Optifreeze is therefore creating special recipes where they determine the optimal nutrient solution, pressure and period of time for each individual plant.
The next step is pulsed electric fields (PEF), where short electrical pulses open the cell wall. The nutrient solution then makes its way into the cell before the cell closes again. The entire process is called OptiCeptTM.
In the early days, the experiments focused on foods like spinach and arugula. The solution to this thus far has been complex, in part because the quality of the leaves varies depending on the weather and wind during growth. The company quickly found other possible areas to use the combination of vacuum impregnation and pulsed electric fields. They are now working with ornamental plants in two different projects.
The first relates to plant cuttings for ornamental plants, and Optifreeze is close to commercialization here. Many plants are propagated with cuttings, and in the spring of 2019 Optifreeze and the major international player Syngenta entered into a partnership agreement for the development of the method to treat cuttings. Ulf Hagman says that the goal is to make the method a world standard.
A popular plant propagated with cuttings is the geranium. In the project, geranium cuttings are harvested from mother plants at a farm in Kenya. The cuttings are then sent to Europe, where they are rooted and put in plugs. From there, they are sold as young plants to geranium growers. Previously, there was a lot of waste in the process of going from cuttings to rooted strong plants.
‑ “We have now increased the rooting percentage and extended the life of the cuttings from between two and four days to up to ten days,” says Ulf Hagman. “Syngenta purchased our first system for the farm in Kenya before the summer of 2019. Since then, we have been running tests. It’s a matter of finding the right recipe for each variety.”
In Kenya, they are also working with cuttings from poinsettias and summer flowers like lobelia. As soon as the test results are confirmed, Optifreeze can start selling systems, recipes and knowledge as the revenue model, in combination with royalties for each treated cutting.
The next area in which Optifreeze is using the method is cut flowers. They are currently treating and testing out recipes in Lund. Their research has shown that it is possible to extend the life of roses that have reached the consumer from an average of five days to ten.
‑ “We would be extremely pleased if we can double the life of roses. The world market for cut flowers is huge – worth 40 billion dollars a year. I hope that we will be able to take this to market during the second half of 2020,” says Ulf Hagman.
A third area is the treatment of vegetables prior to dehydration. There, Optifreeze uses only pulsed electric fields, which open cells so the vegetables can dry out more quickly. In this area, they are working with some major German players, and the hope is to cut dehydration time by 15 percent and thereby achieve energy savings. The technique also works for spices. The market for dried fruit also has huge development opportunities.
2020 looks to be an exciting year for Optifreeze.
‑ “In both vegetable dehydration and the treatment of plant cuttings and cut flowers, we are in the final sprint towards commercialization. We expect to achieve a positive cash flow this year,” explains Ulf Hagman. “We have been researching this for many years, and everyone working with method development has conducted research for the professors. It is extremely exciting to get the opportunity to take a company with so much research knowledge to commercial success!”
More about Optifreeze
The company was founded in Lund in 2011, and has been listed on the Spotlight stock exchange since 2014. The company has approximately 4,000 shareholders.
The first system that the researchers built could treat one lettuce leaf at a time. Now, a machine can process, for example, 50 million cuttings per year.
There are companies that work with vacuum, and some are using PEF – but Optifreeze asserts that they are the only one using the combination of these two techniques and for the applications concerned. “We also have good patent protection for everything we do,” states Ulf Hagman. The recipes developed for the treatment of plants are kept secret.
Optifreeze is an international company and actually has no customers in Sweden. The staff is also international, with people from Italy, Greece, Ghana, Syria, Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey and Sweden involved.