BOOTHBAY, Maine — In 2006, an outbreak of E. coli linked to spinach killed four people and made hundreds more ill in the United States.
In 2008, almost 1,500 people got sick in 43 states when an outbreak of salmonella hit, linked to raw tomatoes and peppers. At least 286 people were hospitalized and the outbreak may have contributed to two deaths, according to the federal government.
Even now, an E. coli outbreak in Germany thought to be connected to vegetables has killed 17 and sickened more than 1,500 others ill in 10 European countries.
And in Maine, a tiny high-tech startup tucked away in Boothbay is quietly working on the problem.
Biovation LLC makes nonwoven pads from corn starch-based biopolymers that are impregnated with antimicrobials in the manufacturing process, on a molecular level.
“Pad plus chemistry equals bleeding edge products,” said CEO Kerem Durdag. “What we essentially are, are master chefs of formulating.”
Biovation is an example of how niche manufacturing creates valuable jobs in sometimes surprising locations throughout the state. The company’s products are aimed at the fresh produce market and at the wound care market. Late last month, Biovation, which was founded in 2009, shipped its first product — large, superabsorbent, antimicrobial pads that will be used in field trials by a major producer-distributor.
The pads will be placed on the bottom of boxes that carry produce from farms to distribution centers. The produce can stay in those boxes for up to three weeks; the pads have been specially treated to soak up any water that comes off the vegetables and contains FDA-approved antimicrobials to help mitigate the spread of E. coli.
Earlier in May, Biovation won the Rising Star Award at the 2011 New England Innovation Awards, sponsored by the Smaller Business Association of New England. The last companies from Maine to win a SBANE award were Tom’s of Maine in 1990 and Wright Express in 1994.
The process for making the pads is somewhat similar to the papermaking process.
Biopolymer pellets and antimicrobials are melted and put through an extruder. Air pumps the mixture through 3,000 tiny holes — sort of like a spider spinning its web. The fibers are only 10-20 microns in diameter, thinner than a human hair. They fall across a moving belt and intermesh as they collect, forming the nonwoven sheet that goes through further drying and winding processes.
The materials are all readily available and the machinery is off-the-shelf, though it has been tweaked. The real innovation is the recipes that allow for the combination of chemical and delivery systems. Highly computerized and technical, the process can create pads of varying thickness, density, strength and other qualities, and the release of the antimicrobials can also be controlled, with effectiveness of up to five years, said Durdag.
The company was co-founded by Wiscasset-based Rynel Inc., a manufacturer of foam for the medical market, and Marc Etchells, an expert in nonwoven textiles and antimicrobials. When Rynel was purchased by the Swedish company Mölnlycke Health Care in 2010, Biovation was spun out. Portland-based venture capital firm ANANIA & Associates became an owner-investor and founder Peter Anania is president and chairman of the board. Durdag, a serial entrepreneur with a track record of running successful high-tech startups, joined the firm in February 2010.
The company is a mature startup, past research and development and heading into product trials and partnerships. Durdag expects Biovation to break even in two years; it’s currently funded by venture capital investments and with about $600,000 in grants from the Maine Technology Institute and the Maine Technology Asset Fund.
The experienced management team is one reason MTI chose to fund Biovation, said Joseph Migliaccio, manager of business innovation programs at MTI.
“They’re a quality team and they have been down this road of development before,” he said.
Food safety has been one of the top concerns of both the Obama administration and Congress. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, about 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food-borne diseases.
The primary challenge for Biovation, said Migliaccio, will be getting the attention of the large companies with which it needs to partner.
“It’s the small fish trying to get the attention of the big fish kind of thing,” he said.
Durdag said Biovation is in talks with several large produce firms and plans to continue making the food pads in Boothbay. He is also talking with large companies for the development of the wound pads, with the goal of making large rolls in Boothbay with final cutting and packaging at a larger company.
The company is using the MTI and MTAF money to build out quality control and product testing labs. It currently employs five full-time workers and five part timers and has plans to grow to at least 10 full timers in the next several years.
Durdag said he saw his main challenge as remaining focused on the two markets that can generate revenue, and that are demanding solutions — food safety and wound care. There’s a market opportunity there, and barriers to entry that include intensive chemical, mechanical and processing know-how. Biovation has been working for three years to perfect the process, Durdag said, and he doesn’t see competition in the marketplace. There’s also no one he’s aware of doing similar work abroad.
“It doesn’t mean in 10 years they can’t figure it out,” he said. “But in 10 years, we’ll be doing something cooler — pushing it ahead.”