Dr. Gary Beall
CEO of Nabaco®
Rice Business Plan Competition 2019 – Recipient of the Texas Business Hall of Fame Best of Texas Prize
This month’s TBHF Spotlight is Dr. Gary Beall and the Nabaco® team. In 2019, Nabaco® won the Texas Business Hall of Fame “Best of Texas” Prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition.
Nabaco® is a nanotechnology agricultural science company dedicated to reducing food loss and waste while maximizing produce industry profitability. We spoke with professor, scientist, and serial entrepreneur Dr. Gary Beall, Nabaco’s Chief Executive Officer.
Tell me about the origins for Nabaco®. What was the inspiration for starting the company?
The idea for Nabaco® was born back in 2015, originating from my research as a professor at Texas State University. Our original research was aimed at improving food packaging. Products like potato chips or pop tarts – they are very sensitive to oxygen, so they use aluminized mylar as the packaging. You can’t see the product through the packaging. So the original goal was to create a transparent mylar packaging that allowed consumers to see the food.
What we discovered during that process was a self-assembling nanocomposite made from components already approved for human consumption. Around this time, I came across an article discussing the negative environmental impact of single-use packaging. And I thought, well our two components are edible, so why don’t we eliminate the packaging all together and put it directly on the food?
Our advisors laughed at the idea initially and said it wouldn’t work. That only made me more determined. We decided to test it out on fruit. And it worked, really well. This initial success would eventually result in the creation of our signature product, NatuWrap®.
In laymen’s terms, can you explain the basic technology behind the NatuWrap® product?
Our coating has two components. The first is a naturally occurring clay, ubiquitous throughout the world. Any time you eat anything grown in the grown, you are consuming a small amount of this clay. This clay is extremely thin, only a nanometer thick. We think of it as a sheet of paper on molecular scale.
The second component is an extract from a tree. We discovered that when combined, these components self-assemble into a brick wall. The polymer from the tree acts as the mortar and the sheets of paper (naturally occurring clay) are the bricks. It creates a barrier that is impermeable to gasses and water.
The coating is thin it doesn’t change the look or the feel of the fruit. However, it is creating a torturous path to those outside elements, preserving the shelf life of the produce.
Is the product currently still in testing phases? Are you working with retailers and farmers?
Our customer based is what we call grower packers. Technically, those are two separate categories, but they work so closely together and are dependent on one another. Largely, we are dealing with packers. Most produce, like apples, pears, avocados, are processed through a packaging plant which is where we apply the coating. The exception to that would be grapes, which we treat a day or two before harvest in the field.
We also interface with the retailers in terms of education.
Nabaco® has competed in a number of pitch competitions, including the Rice Business Plan Competition, and been quite successful. What was that experience like, and do you have any advice for other startups that are competing?
Nabaco® competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition in 2019. We won the TBHF prize and the NASA prize. We walked away with about $102,000 in prize money, which gave us the funding to officially launch the company in May of 2019. Nabaco® is sponsoring a prize at the 2022 RBPC and I’m acting as a judge. It’s really rewarding to be able to pay forward some of our success.
Beyond Nabaco®, I’ve worked with seven different teams that have competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition. I think that success starts with having a well-rounded team. For me, that meant looking for students across different areas of study. You don’t want your entire team to be just scientists or researchers. You want someone with a good understanding of technology. You also need someone who has business acumen. I also always looked for an MFA student proficient in graphic art to round out the team as well. Someone who has an eye for detail and visual presentation. It’s important that you brand image and any materials you are showing to judges look polished, professional, and designed.
That is the same strategy you would apply to any company. You don’t ask someone from the R&D team to create your brand logo. It’s all about assembling the right balance of skills and experience.
What’s next for Nabaco®? Where do you see the company in 5 years?
We believe Nabaco® can be a global company. We are currently testing in five different countries around the world. Food insecurity is the number one issue we are trying to address. Right now, approximately 45% of the food produced in the world never makes it to people to eat. Our solution, the NatuWrap® product, can have a huge impact on that.
Furthermore, rotting food contributes 11% of greenhouse gasses. If it were a country, it would be third behind China and the U.S. If we can stall that rotting and spoilage, we can also begin address and combat climate change.
There are not many opportunities in your life to not only build a company with economic impact, but also the ability to impact world hunger and climate change.