When the American Aronia Berry Association approached Husker researcher Changmou Xu with a problem, he set out to solve it in a big way.
He and his wife and co-founder, Xiaoqing Xie, have worked with numerous campus entities to increase the value of the aronia berry through their startup, A+ Berry.
The company is focused on juice products made from aronia berries. Due to their astringency, the berries do not have an inherent demand; however, they have great potential to impact the Midwest and beyond through their high return value as a crop and impressive health benefits. They boast significantly higher levels of antioxidants than many other popular berries and are projected to have a much higher return per acre than other common Midwestern crops.
Through their research, Xie, Xu and colleagues, including doctoral student Rui Huang, were able to identify the compounds that contributed to the berry’s off-putting taste.
With the help of numerous on-campus partners, including the Food Processing Center, NUTech Ventures and the student-run ad agency Jacht, Xie and Xu decided to turn their research into a business to further solve the aronia berry industry’s problems. They also hope to positively impact Nebraska’s economy.
“I want to show how university research can add extra benefits to the industry,” Xu said. “We can go further than just the publication and change the industry. It’s very important that we as researchers are thinking about how we can provide true value for stakeholders and consumers.”
Xie and Xu were able to identify processes that would mitigate the astringency of the berry while maintaining health benefits. They have filed the patent with NUTech Ventures, which they use to create products offered by A+ Berry.
A+ Berry was founded with the mission to create great-tasting novel drinks with the underutilized “super berry” and machine learning to improve human health. This, in turn, would create demand for aronia berries, which grow exceptionally well in the Midwest and could have a large impact on local agriculture. Currently, the company’s products include AroJuice, AroWine and AroConcentrate.
“The AroJuice contains three times the number of antioxidants, more dietary fiber and only one third of the amount of sugar that is normal on average,” Xu said.
Xie and Xu enjoyed the adventure of learning how to turn from researchers to business partners. They’ve received support and mentorship from all across the university and Midwest, including the following:
• The Food Science Department and the Food Processing Center, which houses the research and startup. A+ Berry received a $125,000 academic research and development grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to work with the Food Processing Center, which provides a variety of services for food companies, such as product development, sensory evaluation, labeling, food safety test/validation and pilot scale production. • NUTech Ventures, which prepares patent applications and trains entrepreneurs, such as through the Customer Discovery Program. • Nebraska Innovation Campus office, which helps make introductions and conducts client/partner research. A+ Berry is a partner of NIC. • The Combine and Invest Nebraska, which provides suggestions on business development and helps make introductions. • Yacht Agency, which helped with the logo, label and brochure design. • Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which provided grant support, including a $125,000 academic research and development grant (phase I) and a $5,000 SBIR–STTR Grant (phase 0). • NMotion and Gener8tor: A+ Berry was one of the five startup companies selected by the NMotion pre-accelerator program in . NMotion and its parent company, Gene8tor, provided advice and resources to grow the business. • Nebraska Business Development Center, which helped with the SBIR program application.
• American Aronia Berry Association, which supported the research work and raw materials. A+ Berry is a partner of AABA. • Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which provided multiple mentors. • As a faculty member, Xu received three grants from the US Department of Agriculture’s specialty crop program on aronia berry research.
Using these resources, Xie and Xu are committed to having an impact on the Midwest and the country.
Midwestern ag producers who grow the aronia berry are wanting to try a high value crop that can diversify their farms and increase their income compared to major crops, such as corn and soybeans.
Aronia berries are estimated to have a four times higher return than major crops — about $1,000 per acre. The berry grows well in the Midwest and offers producers low input costs overall. It can also be sold at a higher price (70 cents to $1 per pound wholesale), and one acre can produce about 4,000 to 8,000 pounds, according to Xu.
Xie and Xu see nationwide impacts through the health and environmental benefits of the berry. By developing the products that make this impact, they also increase the demand, which will help Midwestern agriculture.
The duo has already sourced more than 10,000 pounds of berries through their current AroJuice process which includes: procuring Aronia berries from Midwest growers, cold-press to obtain the juice, flavor improvement with a patent-pending technology, bottling and high-pressure processing to inactivate the microbes and extend the shelf-life.
They hope to continue supporting the development of the industry by reaching millions of pounds of berries sourced in the near future.
To support this goal, they are currently developing a non-alcoholic wine product called AroWine to mimic the flavor of red wine, based on a flavor fingerprint database and machine learning algorithms. Their research indicated a societal trend towards non-alcoholic wine and beer, which would align with their company’s values of health and well-being.
Their next steps include conducting clinical studies to prove the health benefit of developed products, particularly on cardiovascular health. They are working on AroConcentrate, a freeze-concentrate of AroJuice or AroWine, which reduces their packaging and shipping cost by 75% and has little effect on the flavor and nutrition. They are also looking for other ways to innovate and pursue their commitment to a zero-waste process, which currently includes transferring the pomace from the juicing process into functional ingredients that can be used for food, cosmetic or nutraceutical industries.
Xie and Xu are passionate about the aronia berry and making a positive impact across multiple entities. They have spent countless hours networking within the Lincoln community and beyond and have already created many valuable partnerships and have secured businesses that will carry their products.
“We’d like to see the aronia berry do for the Midwest what grapes did for California,” they said.