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Sunday, 16 September 2012 18:19

Biotech firm to make natural pest-fighting products in Bangor

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BANGOR — For Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., Michigan wasn’t the first choice for its new plant, but it ended up being the best option.

A manufacturer of biopesticides for agricultural and water treatment purposes, Marrone Bio was founded in 2006 by self-described serial entrepreneur Pamela Marrone and is part of the small but rapidly growing biological-control market. The company currently employs around 100 employees and is based out of Davis, Calif.

“What we do is look for ways to control pests without adversely affecting the environment,” Marrone said.

According to the International Biocontrol Manufacturers’ Association, the biological control market is only 3 percent of the $44 billion crop control market, but the market has been growing by 10 percent per year, driven by a growing demand for organically grown crops.

Initially, Marrone Bio was looking at facilities in states including Pennsylvania, but talks with plants there kept falling through. The company's founders already had experience opening a fermentation production facility in Tlaxcala, Mexico while part of a previous venture. According to Marrone, Marrone Bio wanted to keep production in the United States.

“We looked everywhere, and I was getting frustrated as talks kept falling through,” said Marrone. “We had Senator (Debbie) Stabenow out to the office, but we weren’t really considering Michigan as a possible site.”

However, Marrone Bio changed its mind when presented with the pool of skilled labor Michigan had to offer, as well as the production site it ultimately purchased.

“With this acquisition, we lay the cornerstone of our manufacturing strategy,” Don Glidewell, CFO of Marrone Bio, said in a statement.

The new plant gives the company in-house production facilities to allow it to stop outsourcing much of its production. Glidewell said the acquisition of the plant gives Marrone Bio added capacity and flexibility to develop and add new products to its portfolio. The company also uses contract manufacturers to “mitigate the risk of single-source production,” he stated.

The 11,400-square-foot facility and 11-acre site it eventually selected in Bangor, Mich. — about 30 miles west of Kalamazoo — was formerly a biodiesel plant. Marrone broke ground on Aug. 21 to repurpose the site and expects to begin production in early 2013.

The production of Marrone Bio’s biopesticides has several similarities to biodiesel production, including the need for large tanks for a fermentation process. The first phase of the development will involve the changeover of four fermentation tanks, each with a 15,000-liter capacity, and the addition of between 20 and 30 employees. Second phase plans include the conversion of two additional tanks with individual capacities of between 100,000 liters and 150,000 liters and another staff increase that would put the total number of workers at the plant over 50.

According to Marrone, the company was looking for a site that filled three requirements: size, access to utilities and isolation. She said isolation was particularly important due to the smell given off by the fermentation process Marrone Bio uses to manufacture the biopesticides.

“Personally I don’t mind it, but some people have described it as an ‘old sock’ kind of smell,” Marrone said. “You really don’t want the factory to be with houses right on its border.”

The production site also allows Marrone Bio to be close to Michigan State University, whose professors in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have occasionally worked with the firm. Marron said MSU Professor William Kirk in the plant pathology department has worked with the company in the past. Marrone Bio has also coordinated with the university to provide internship opportunities for students.

To date, the company produces three biopesticides, two of which are specifically geared toward crop-loss prevention: Regaila, an antibacterial and antifungal product that triggers a plant’s natural defense systems to protect against diseases including powdery mildew, early blight, brown rot and greasy spot, and Grandevo, a broad-spectrum insecticide and anti-mite product derived from a specific bacterium.

Marrone Bio’s third product, Zequanox, has implications for Great Lakes factories and power plants. Zequanox is a non-chemical alternative for controlling invasive mussel species like zebra and quagga mussels that clog intake pipes. Currently, many companies use chemicals like chlorine to control the mussels, but that process has the drawbacks of producing toxic water that must treated before release. Additionally, the mussels perceive the chlorine as a threat, necessitating longer application periods.

By contrast, Marrone said Zequanox is composed of an ecologically harmless bacterium that is lethal to zebra and quagga mussels during every life stage. The mussels perceive the bacteria as a food source, not a threat. Other advantages of Zequanox are that the application time is short at about eight hours, detoxification of discharge water is not required and workers are exposed to minimal risks.

Marrone said the largest benefit of Zequanox is that it allows factories to save money because production doesn’t need to be stopped and restarted in order to clean colonies of mussels from intake pipes.

Of Marrone Bio’s three current products, it anticipates manufacturing Zequanox and Grandevo at the Bangor facility. The firm also has several products in early-stage development that will ultimately be produced at the new site, Marrone said. Those products include an EPA-approved bioherbicide and an additional biopesticide awaiting EPA approval.

The development of biological products as pesticides is also a cheaper and shorter process than the creation of new chemical pesticides, Marrone said. One of Marrone Bio’s products could cost $3 million over three years to research and develop, while a similar process for a chemical pesticide could take $180 million over 10 years, she added.

Marrone Bio’s products are also approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a process that includes testing to ensure non-target organisms aren’t affected by the application of the product. Marrone said the approval process typically takes 12 months for ornamental crops and 18 months for food crops.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed from its original format. Marrone Bio didn’t open a fermentation plant in Mexico. Rather, the company’s founder opened the plant while part of an earlier venture.

Read 3115 times Last modified on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 12:49
Carl Dunker

Contributing reporter

cdunker@mibiz.com

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