A freezer designed to give a quick chill to bottles of beer is now used to rapidly freeze blood plasma, and Insta Cool of North America is hoping its technology eventually can be sold to ice everything from poultry to human organs.
Since the Anaheim company won Food and Drug Administration approval in February to sell its fluorcarbon-based liquid coolant in the blood plasma market, several regional blood centers and medical laboratories have bought Insta Cool freezers, replacing standard air-blast coolers.
Now Insta Cool, which said its freezer works five times faster and uses a fraction of the energy of traditional freezers, is seeking FDA approval to market its product in the chicken and turkey freezing business.
Analysts in the plasma and poultry industries estimated that freezer sales in each market might be worth more than $150 million a year.
Potential uses of the technology don't stop there, according to Philip Coelho, Insta Cool's vice president of research and development. The company is researching the preservation of body parts and the processing of other foods. "We're selling the better freezer," said Richard A. Freschi, president of Insta Cool, which moved its headquarters from Rancho Cordova near Sacramento to Anaheim in June, 1987, "to be closer to major markets."
Other liquid-based products using dry ice, alcohol or a heavily salted base are on the market, but industry analysts said no other product has been introduced yet that greatly speeds freezing time while reducing energy costs.
Insta Cool, which started two years ago by buying the rights to the technology from a Northern California firm, first marketed its product to restaurants and bars to give a quick frost to beverages.
Insta Cool went public in June, offering warrants and 2.5 million shares of stock valued at about 75 cents per share, raising $2.3 million. The stock closed Monday at $1 per share on the over-the-counter market.
In fiscal 1987, which ended in June, sales were just $90,997, and the company had a net loss of $753,372. Freschi, counting on FDA approval to enter the poultry market, said he expects sales of nearly $1 million this year, with a profit possible.
The magic in the Insta Cool chill is a fluorocarbon-based mixture that can be as cold as 70 degrees below zero before it freezes. The company said the colorless fluid is nonflammable, nontoxic and 70% heavier than water.
The coolant circulates through a refrigerated tank, sucking the heat out of a product.
The idea is simple, Freschi said: It's similar to putting a warm can of beer in ice water, "only our solution is a lot colder."
Freschi, a former executive in the hospital supply business, said that Insta Cool's method saves up to 50% in energy costs, contrasted with traditional methods, while acting five times faster. For instance, 16 300-milliliter bags of plasma can be frozen in 15 minutes in the Insta Cool freezer, contrasted with a freezing time of more than an hour in an air blaster.
"It works wonders," said Beverly Weant, director of technical services for Tri State Regional Blood Services, a branch of the Red Cross, in Huntington, W.Va.
Weant was one of Insta Cool's first customers. She said she was so impressed by the cooler that she has encouraged the national Red Cross to recommend that other branches buy the machine. Most blood centers use either air freezers or dry-ice solutions for chilling.
Time is essential in freezing plasma. Weant said if plasma isn't frozen within six hours of being removed from the donor, its productivity rapidly deteriorates.
"Our plasma recovery rate--the product that we're able to use after it freezes--is up more than 20%," Weant said.
She also said the Insta Cool freezer doesn't generate heat that electric freezers give off. And the Insta Cool freezer never needs to be defrosted.
Freezing time and costs of electricity are also important concerns in the poultry freezing industry. Several chicken producers are aware of Insta Cool's technology, but Freschi said his company is waiting for FDA approval to market the freezer.
"If it's faster and cheaper, you'd better believe that we'd be excited about having it," said Jim Blair, a vice president of Tyson Foods, one of the nation's largest chicken producers in Springdale, Ark.
"We kill 14 million birds a week," Blair said. "If we could find a better way to cool them off, I'm sure we'd be interested." He said Tyson cools its chickens in air freezers or in a saltwater-like solution.
As consumers continue to seek foods low in fat, demand for chicken will increase, said J.D. Simpson, a food processing industry analyst at Stephens Inc., an investment banking firm in Little Rock, Ark. Simpson said U.S. chicken production totaled 7.8 billion pounds in 1986.
Insta Cool's plans for a conveyor freezer could freeze 16,000 chickens per hour.
L. Craig Carver, a food industry analyst at Dain, Bosworth, a brokerage firm in Minneapolis, said: "Competition in the poultry business is intense. There is a highly concentrated effort on cost reduction. A money-saving cooler would give a good edge."
Insta Cool's current FDA request is to market its product to freeze whole chickens sealed in bags, analysts said. That would represent about 20% of the chicken market.
Freschi said the FDA might rule on the request in the next few weeks.
If it wins FDA permission, Insta Cool plans to seek approval to freeze unsealed chicken, as well. To do that, Freschi said Insta Cool must prove further that its product is nontoxic.
"I don't see that as a problem. I think that it's safe with food, and the level of fluorocarbon is very low," he said.
Meanwhile, the company continues research for other uses of its technology. In the first quarter of fiscal 1987, Insta Cool spent $63,000 on research and development.
Coelho said the company is developing the freezing technology so it can be used to preserve sperm, cartilage and organs.
After a person dies, human tissue intended for transplant remains usable for less than 48 hours, when the cells also die. Halting the cells' death by freezing them could help eliminate the time limit.
"We want to develop a variable-rate, programmable freezer that can keep human cells alive," Coelho said.
The same technology that would freeze human cells could be used to freeze fish while preserving their fresh taste, Coehlo said. The freezing process now used kills the fish's cells, which rupture, leaking the fish's nutrients and deteriorating its fibers.
Freschi said: "The neat thing is that all the research we've done with plasma helps us in the poultry area. It helps us in developing cryo-preservation, and it helps in anything else we might want to do later on."
INSTA COOL OF NORTH AMERICA AT A GLANCE
Insta Cool of North America in Anaheim is a manufacturer of a rapid-cooling freezer. In February, the company received Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the freezer in the blood plasma market. Insta Cool is seeking FDA approval to enter the market for freezing poultry.
Year ends June 30
(in thousands) 1988 1987 1986 3 mos. Revenue $63 $90 $3 Net loss $195 753 171
Assets $1.9 million
Number of employees 10
Shares outstanding 8.6 million
52-week price range $2.25-$.40906
Monday closing price $1, up 6.25 cents.
President Richard A. Freschi