Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Bacteria, fungi, ideas and inventions

By KIMBERLY HIRAI
Capital News Service

LANSING – A white brick building in East Lansing hides among residential homes and the shadow of an apartment complex’s white towers. The small, simple sign out front reads: Working Bugs.

Inside, the building smells of rubbing alcohol and bacterial cultures. That’s because the bugs at Working Bugs are microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. They produce chemicals to replace petroleum in plastics, clothing, fuel and other products.

Most residents don’t know that owner and manager Dianne Holman – one of several entrepreneurs in mid-Michigan’s growing biomanufacturing industry – runs a biorefinery in their building.

Biomanufacturing uses biological chemicals or materials in place of petroleum to make products. Examples include bikes made from waste wood products and children’s craft peanuts that KTM Industries Inc. makes from cornstarch, said Tracey Maroney, executive director of Greater Mid-Michigan Bio-Manufacturing Alliance.

The grassroots biomanufacturing movement in East Lansing is 5 years old and has 25 to 30 companies, Maroney said. The industry overall includes universities, industrial giants like Ford Motor Co. and Dow Chemical Co. and startups like Working Bugs.

“Michigan is a traditional manufacturing state,” Maroney said. “I think it’s the young, innovative entrepreneur-ish mindset that’s going to drive this biosector.”

Biorefineries are just one part of the industry. Holman and her team identify microorganisms that produce chemicals during fermentation.

The company once focused on N-butanol, an ingredient used in cosmetics like nail polish. Holman’s group made a bio-based equivalent.

Maroney said young companies can move quickly.

Working Bugs will release new products late this summer, according to Holman, who won’t disclose what they are because patents are pending.

Holman isn’t a typical entrepreneur. Instead of a power suit, she wears black jeans, a comfortable algae-green sweater and a yellow T-shirt. She went from civil engineer to biomanufacturing entrepreneur after a 14-year career with the Department of Environmental Quality.

After years of looking at other people’s projects, she itched to create her own, saying, “I think I always envied to be on the design side of things.”

She formed Working Bugs in 2006, hoping to see Michigan regain its manufacturing might and contribute to it.

In the fermentation lab, glass vessels with metal stir sticks mix broth the color of beer.

Sugar stock, nutrients, water and microorganisms make up a recipe that is constantly tweaked. Holman says bugs can be fussy, and her team discovers the temperature, food, and other lifestyle conditions they prefer—such as how acidic or basic an environment they’ll grow in.

The company first processed local potatoes for a sugar food source to nourish its hungry microorganisms. Now it uses premade stocks from Michigan sugar beets, among other sources but Holman said she hopes to again make sugar stocks from local food sources in the future.

Graduating through a series of larger and larger vessels, microorganisms multiply in number. Thousands or millions of microorganisms eventually undergo fermentation at a scale large enough to manufacture and harvest chemicals.

As the microorganisms use up the sugar food, they begin to drown in the chemical product produced. “It’s like dying in your own pee,” Holman said.

The biochemical is separated from the microorganism through a series of extractions and purification steps, all of which Holman keeps secret.

Working Bugs has figured out how to use the waste from the reaction for other products. “We try to use everything,” Holman said. “Our goal is to have no waste streams.”

There’s much to accomplish on the cutting edge of a new industry, Holman says. This is a sector where you have to create your own market. You’re competing with well-established, traditional processes.”

David Jones, chief business officer for MBI International, said traditional chemical and petroleum companies have shown renewed interest in biomanufacturing.

MBI takes biomanufacturing ideas and commercializes them.

“During the downturn they downsized a lot of their research capability and scale-up capability, so now they’re looking to partner with universities and places like MBI to do that,” Jones said.

“This is still an emerging market, and everybody is really trying to carve out a niche in technology just to try and get the industry started,” he said.

The alliance’s Maroney said networking is part of building a chain of entrepreneurs, suppliers, researchers and manufacturers.

“I’ve got to work really hard to connect them together because we don’t want those ideas to stay locked up in an ivory tower,” Maroney said.

As the industry expands, so does Working Bugs.

Like its microorganisms, the company outgrew its vessel — it will manufacture chemicals in greater quantities by moving to a larger facility in the coming months.

Holman said she looks forward to seeing more companies like her own, and replacing current manufacturing methods with new ideas can help.

“Sometimes it takes bad things happening to the traditional method to get people to focus on maybe we need to do things a new way,” she said.

Kimberly Hirai writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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