A grain of sand, a whole lot of track and trace
Each tag can be written with a signature that can only be scanned and decoded by the company’s instrumentation. These microtags can be uniquely coded to indicate a processor, product type, batch number, manufacturing run, plant number, country of origin, etc. Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a 2014 Technology Pioneer, the technology makes TruTag one the world’s most innovative companies.
Food Engineering interviewed Peter M. O. Wong, COO of TruTag Technologies, to find out more about this technology and how it can be applied in the food industry. Wong is no stranger to high-tech startup companies. His career has focused on providing strategic guidance to technology companies at critical inflection points. Prior to joining TruTag Technologies, Wong served as senior vice president and general counsel for educational technology developer LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc. He also served as general counsel and vice president of corporate development at Quokka Sports, Inc., a digital media company.
FE: When did you discover TruTag Technologies?
Wong: I joined the effort back in 2010, when TruTag was just a research project funded by a grant from the US military and was tasked with determining the market opportunity for this robust technology. We then spun the technology out of SKAI Ventures, a leading venture accelerator based in Honolulu, HI, that had assembled a core research and development team and incorporated TruTag in 2011. In 2012, we added experienced industry executives to help us expand our operations, raise capital, build our manufacturing facilities and launch commercially.
FE: What drew you to TruTag?
Wong: The TruTag technology was compelling in a number of different ways. It was unique and complex, but also easy to explain and implement. Importantly, it was a novel way to address the massive and growing problem of counterfeit products, whether it is food, medicine, consumer goods, electronic components or industrial parts. In my view, the technology was very scalable across many market verticals, which is something you don’t see very often in emerging technology.
Every industry in every part of the world is affected by counterfeit, substandard and diverted products. And with today’s increasingly complex global supply chains, the challenge to authenticate and track products is only getting larger. For decades now, traditional methods of fighting counterfeiting have been focused on adding security features to the product packaging. But even with these security marks, counterfeiting continues to grow rapidly since these security measures are continually defeated by sophisticated, well-funded criminal organizations. Since TruTag focuses on becoming an integrated security feature on the product itself, it is a unique solution.
FE: Who are the brains behind this technology?
Wong: We are fortunate to have very smart scientists and engineers in Hawaii and California who have developed the various aspects of our “covert, edible barcode” technology, because the full system requires expertise in material science, chemistry, opto-mechanics electronics, signal processing and advanced software. From the early days, this effort was led by our Chief Technical Officer Dr. Mike O’Neill, who has experience in laser measurement, microscopy, optical data storage and renewable security.
FE: How does the technology work?
Wong: We encode our microscopic silica particles in such a way that they carry a unique spectral pattern, chosen from a vast library of available codes. These spectral patterns are used as specific identification markers that act just like traditional printed barcodes and QR codes. Once our decoding equipment verifies this signature, it can be converted to a simple reference number and associated with unique product information located in a relational database, such as product/part number, manufacturing plant, lot number or country of authorized sale.
FE: What are the tags’ physical dimensions? When the tags are used in a food product, will consumers notice them?
Wong: The microparticles we generally use are approximately 20 to 100 microns, which is about the width of a single human hair and much smaller than a grain of sugar or salt. Therefore, the microtag is covert and, when incorporated into the product, is virtually invisible. One gram of TruTag microtags contains approximately 12 million particles. As a result, the TruTags can be coated onto or incorporated into high-volume, high-value items such as food products, medicine and medical devices in a covert manner and very economically. For example, when incorporated into the coating of a vitamin or prescription drug tablet, the pill aesthetics are unchanged.
FE: Do the perceived issues with nanoparticles apply to these tags?
Wong: No. As I mentioned, our tags are measured in micrometers, not nanometers, so they are much larger particles. When ingested, these silica particles simply pass through the body’s digestive tract; they are not absorbed into other cells or into the blood stream, as nanoparticles may be. Also, silica (silicon dioxide or SiO2) is considered “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, by FDA and has been used as an ingredient in food and medicine for decades.
FE: Is decoding equipment available for purchase so food and beverage processors can use it at their locations?
Wong: We provide our proprietary readers for use as part of an integrated product authentication system. The readers decode the specific spectral patterns assigned to a given customer. We offer lab services for detecting materials and products as well.
FE: How does a processor find these tags in a product to decode them?
Wong: There are two methods to detect the tags. In the first instance, a processor uses the TruTag detector to interrogate and verify our microtags in locations where we have applied or incorporated them on or into the product. Alternatively, the customer may forward samples of the product to TruTag, and we can forensically recover the tags and provide full reporting and analytics.
FE: Is this technology available now? Who are your most likely customers?
Wong: Yes, our product authentication system is available in several vertical markets. Because our platform is designed for high-value, high-volume, low-cost products, including drugs, vitamins, food, electronic components and industrial parts, our system is designed to meet the cost structure of such products. Accordingly, our profile customer is a major global manufacturer that needs to protect its valuable brands and can leverage the product intelligence that can be obtained from applying and using our covert, edible barcodes throughout the global supply chain.
FE: If a processor wants to add your microtags to mark a couple of batches per day, can it be done onsite?
Wong: If a company wants to do this, we will provide it with specifically encoded tags to be used for each distinct batch of products. Usually, the manufacturer does not need any special equipment for the product marking process because we tend to engineer a solution within the existing manufacturing process, if at all possible.
FE: If a reader would like to know more about TruTag technology, whom should he or she call?
Wong: Interested firms can contact us via our website or send us an email, including a description of the type of product to be marked, at firstname.lastname@example.org.