A Delaware biotech company has come up with a novel way to use Nebraska corn and provide diversification to ethanol producers.
White Dog Labs, which has developed a process that uses a bacteria to turn carbohydrates into protein-rich animal feed, has announced plans to set up a manufacturing plant at the Midwest Renewable Energy ethanol plant near Sutherland, which is about 230 miles west of Lincoln.
Ethanol plants often are a source of food for livestock such as cattle, but White Dog Labs — named after a slang term for a type of moonshine — plans to produce an ingredient that will be used for animals with fins instead of legs.
The company has been doing pilot manufacturing of its ProTyton single-cell protein ingredient used in fish feed for aquaculture and is now at the point where it has customers that want the product and needs to do commercial production.
Bryan Tracy, White Dog Labs' CEO, said construction should start in the spring, with the plant expected to be operational by the fourth quarter of next year.
The plant initially will be able to produce 3,000 metric tons of ProTyton annually, with the capability to expand to 30,000 tons a year by 2021.
The ProTyton production process uses fermentation and is similar to the ethanol production process, which makes ethanol plants the perfect place to produce it, Tracy said.
What makes Nebraska an ideal place for production is the abundance of corn, he said. Nebraska is the third-largest corn-producing state, behind Iowa and Illinois, and harvested 9.3 million acres of corn last year.
Delaware, by comparison, harvested 171,000 acres of corn last year.
"Practically speaking, I think we could consume roughly a third of (Delaware's) corn crop," Tracy said.
There also are other reasons to be in Nebraska, Tracy said. The state has good logistics and good railroads, which is important, he said, because most of the company's product is likely to be exported.
Nebraska also has a "very welcoming environment" for businesses, he said.
Tracy complimented the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and state agencies he's working with for permits, among others.
The welcoming environment also has included a venture capital investment in the company by Invest Nebraska, the state’s public-private venture development organization. The undisclosed investment was announced earlier this month.
"We conducted due diligence on WDL’s technology, products and plans and are extremely optimistic about the company’s potential,” Dan Hoffman, CEO of Invest Nebraska, said in a news release. “WDL’s entrepreneurship, technology, products, markets and emphasis on sustainability, fit nicely with our profile of high potential companies, and we are excited that they have selected Nebraska for their first plant."
Tracy said Midwest Renewable Energy is a good partner because it sees the value in diversifying the products it makes. In addition to ethanol, the company's plant also produces and sells wet distiller's grain, as well as corn syrup that's used as a feed additive.
In an October news release announcing the White Dog Labs plant, Tom Wilson, general manager of Midwest Renewable Energy, said the deal "helps us maximize the utilization of our ethanol processing assets and offers us a diversification option.”
“We are excited to work with WDL, as we are impressed with the simplicity of the process, the high value of the product in the ever-growing aquaculture industry, and the fact that the process will add more feed co-products to our current offering,” he said.
Tracy said White Dog Labs is working with engineering firms and equipment suppliers to come up with a plant design that can be easily adapted for other potential manufacturing partners.
"Our goal is to facilitate easy duplication of ProTyton production at other ethanol plants that might be interested in diversification,” he said.
As for the product itself, Tracy said it fills a critical need.
Most fish meal used today is produced from small fish that aren't staples in human consumption, such as anchovies, sardines and mackerel.
It also only has an effective protein content of about 40-50 percent. ProTyton, by comparison, has about 85 percent protein content.
Studies also have shown that ProTyton provides health benefits in the marine animals to which it is fed, particularly shrimp, and it also is less expensive than traditional fish feed.
Tracy said overfishing has greatly reduced populations both of the fish humans eat and the fish that is used as fish feed.
That means the only way for the seafood industry to keep going and expand is through aquaculture, or farm raising of fish.
Those fish will need to be fed, and Tracy believes the future of fish feed lies in plant protein rather than animal protein, which is why he sees such a bright future for his product.
"There's a tremendous appetite, pun intended, to bring these ingredients to market," he said.
And it will all start in the heart of Nebraska corn country.