An innovative system to test the "juiciness" of oranges

University research laboratories are not only cutting-edge, but also open to the needs of the surrounding territory. Research supports market competitiveness, as is the case for the latest technological development, designed by Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Fondazione Università  Ca' Foscari, and Agricola Lusia. Agricola Lusia is a company based in Rovigo which specialises in the selling of citruses for large-scale distribution and aims at sustainability. The company, relying on scientific research to think outside the box, has patented, together with the university, a system that applies mathematical methods to obtain non-destructive statistical classification of citrus fruits. 

This is the first method, and the related software and computer system, that enables the determination of a juiciness parameter of citrus fruits while minimising their destruction in the process. The system then selects the oranges one by one in a process that can be replicated, tested and that, unlike other processes, is not destructive. In fact, the European regulation EC 1221/2008 states that oranges and other citrus fruits should contain at least 30-35% of juice in terms of weight, depending on the variety. However, no study had connected the quantity of juice with the physical properties of the citrus fruit; therefore, a large quantity of fruit needed to be destroyed in order to test this parameter – a method that was neither sustainable nor replicable on an industrial level. 

'The method developed by Ca' Foscari and Agricola Lusia allows us to overcome these limitations and predict the percentage and weight of the juice of each fruit ("juiciness"), using a very limited quantity of fruit – few dozen' says Professor Pietro Riello from Ca' Foscari's Department of Molecular Sciences and Nanosystems, who is also one of the inventors of this patent. Thanks to a series of squeezing tests and a volumetric test that scans the fruit, the method develops a juiciness model that gives instructions to the system, based on the previously defined parameter, variety, origin and degree of ripeness of the lot. 

The classification of any citrus fruit can therefore be more sustainable, efficient and implemented on an industrial scale, because it can easily be added to already-existing machinery by means of a dedicated device. This is an advantage in which Agricola Lusia has invested by taking out a patent with Ca' Foscari, and then acquiring it entirely for industrial implementation.

Under the coordination of the C4S - Center for Sustainability of Fondazione Università Ca' Foscari, the researchers and the company worked together in the experimentations conducted by Professor Pietro Riello of the Department of Molecular Sciences and Nanosystems, Professor Carlo Gaetan of the Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics, and by Paolo Girardi PhD, now at the Department of Developmental Psychology and Socialization of the University of Padua. The technology was developed in collaboration with the CEO of Agricola Lusia, Daniele Campagnaro, and the General and Strategic Manager, Nicola Modica. 'We sought out a collaboration with the university,' says Modica, 'to give scientific support to our promise of a new line of products. We are thrilled with the synergy that has enabled us to introduce a successful product in a significant test market and to offer real, sustainable innovation.'

'Being innovative does not mean inventing the product of the century' says Professor Riello. 'It means listening to company needs, in order to help companies become more competitive by improving their production processes or products and finding technical solutions, even simple ones, that are in keeping with their nature and their investment capacity. It is a dialogue thanks to which our university can offer invaluable support to the surrounding territory and give value to research.'

For Agricola Lusia this is the last – and least explored – phase of a long collaboration with the academic world, in a quest for innovation in the food and agriculture sector that could make a difference. In fact, Agricola Lusia had already participated in the Active Learning Lab Agrifood, a learning lab, organised by Professor Vladi Finotto of Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Management, in which students of various fields develop original projects based on the challenges faced by a company, using Design Thinking, Lean Startup and a Business Model Canvas. 

Scientific validation of the ideas that emerged was then supported by the C4S - Center for Sustainability of Fondazione Università Ca' Foscari, coordinated by Professor Antonio Marcomini. The Center supports the university by promoting applied research that can create value and have an impact on the surrounding territory in terms of sustainability. The research project that was developed highlighted a lack of indicators that could be obtained with sustainable methods (i.e. without destroying fruit); it then suggested which experiments could be conducted to devise such a method. With the support of PInK – Promoting Innovation and Knowledge, Ca' Foscari's portal for technology and knowledge transfer, the effort made by the researchers over two years of experimentation has resulted in a shared patent and a company purchase, so that this new method may now be applied in the market and offer an innovative product that has a scientific basis. 

Author: Helene Duci / Translator: Joangela Ceccon