The Essence of Zoom

Have you ever tried to recreate the powdered version a favorite coffee drink at home, and the results were less than satisfactory? Or excitedly tried a new chewing gum flavor, but the taste just didn't, well, pop?

American food and beverages are diverse and full of flavor combinations. Each year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the flavoring industry where smart, chemistry-minded scientists work on ways to make what we eat and drink taste good. There's actually a scientific reason why those flavors sometimes weren't quite what you expected. It's related to the process that turns a liquid-based flavor into a powder, called spray drying.  Powder flavoring is a multi-million dollar industry whose results on occasion don't always hit the mark. But a fledging Northern Kentucky startup is working to transform that scientific process. The entrepreneurs behind Hebron-based ZoomEssence, a nimble research and development firm, are working to make over the powder flavor industry.

The growing company, with corporate offices in New Jersey, is literally being built around Northern Kentucky scientist Dr. Charles Beetz. Beetz developed a new technology, which aims to turn the traditional powder making model on its head. ZoomEssence was founded in 2008, following a conversation between chairman and CEO Robert Corbett and Beetz, who met through a mutual acquaintance.

"Bob was telling me about problems in making flavored powders," Beetz, a physicists and consummate problem-solver said.  "I thought 'I could do that,' so we worked together and built a few test models, and they worked."

This led to a partnership between Beetz and Corbett that spanned both sides of the Ohio River. ZoomEssence's potential is fueled by experience and the entrepreneurial bent of its founders. Beetz, originally from Colerain Township, is an accomplished physicist who had previously co-founded three companies. One of those, Advanced Tech Materials Inc., developed reliable diamond-based cold cathode materials. It went public in 1994 and still trades on NASDAQ today.

Corbett, who lives in New Jersey, is a veteran executive in the consumer product, flavor and fragrance industries. He's a former president and North American vice president of the Flavor Division of New York City-based International Flavors and Fragrances. He got his start here in Cincinnati at Procter & Gamble. ZoomEssence initially was housed in the Hamilton County Business Center, Beetz said.

"We built our very first demo unit in there. We made fantastic flavor with a really simple apparatus," he said.

They soon outgrew the space, and in 2009 moved to Northern Kentucky where they found a high tech space for a reasonable price. The company is also a client of the Northern Kentucky ezone, which supports area high tech startups.

ZoomEssence's growth follows its innovative technology

One of the most common forms of flavoring is powder. It's not only used in those drinks we make at home, but are part of flavoring gum, snacks, sauces and soups. Powder flavors and ingredients are found in everything from baby food and pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and pet food. The powdered flavor business generates about $2 billion annually, while the powder coffee industry alone is worth $25 billion. ZoomEssence is working to capture a piece of that lucrative market.

The company is nudging its way in through a proprietary DriZoom (TM) technology, which aims to fundamentally change the spray drying process that creates powder flavors. Traditionally, it involved a high-temperature process that through a drying system turned a liquid emulsion containing an ingredient (vanilla extract, for instance) into a powder. While traditional spray drying is widely adopted, it creates some real problems since heat negatively impacts the powder flavor in terms of flavor profile, stability and solubility, explained ZoomEssence CFO and Director of Business Development Steve Hardek.

"Powdered flavor never taste the same, when you heat it up it changes the flavor profile," Hardek said. "Lots of flavors are sensitive to light, heat and air."

ZoomEssence flavors are formed in a new process, one that doesn't rely on heat. Hardek, as you would imagine, didn't go into detail about exactly how it works, but said the energy saving process meets some of the most difficult challenges in the powder flavor industry.

"First, when you eliminate the use of heat, powder flavors taste better. Secondly, we don't have evaporation or oxidation issues (associated with tradition spray drying) so we have a longer shelf life. We also have improved solubility; we go into water easier than normal spray products," Hardek said.

ZoomEssence has about 400 flavor samples that it's shopping internationally. The company in November neared a potential first deal to sell its fish oil powder that Beetz said "doesn't smell like fish."

Currently the company is a small operation, with just two people working in its Hebron space. But that's about to change. The company is investing $1 million to develop its technology and ramp up production on a larger scale.

This investment will create at least 20 new jobs in the next 18 months. Eleven of those are considered high-tech and technical support jobs that will pay an average salary of about $67,000. The state of Kentucky is helping company development with a $175,000 state Economic Development Finance Authority grant through the Cabinet for Economic Development's High-Tech Investment Pool. The pool is used to support technology-based and research-intensive companies and projects.

The finance authority also gave ZoomEssence preliminary approval for up to $300,000 in tax breaks through the Kentucky Business Investment (KBI) program. The incentive can be earned over 10 years through corporate income tax credits and wage assessments.

These state incentives will help ZoomEssence ramp up production capability more quickly, getting product to market faster, Hardek said.

"It's allowing us to hire people and buy equipment faster, so it's really spurring our growth," he said. "We're growing, excited and happy to be in Kentucky. The support we received from governor and his team has been fantastic for us."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Magnification of powder particles
Zoom Essence flavors
Raspberry close up
Bill Frame, Wayne Abate, Dr. Charles Beetz, Bob Corbett
Dr. Charles Beetz at his computer
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