New OSU spinoff company ships first product

AGAE Technologies LLC, a new Corvallis biotechnology company based on research at Oregon State University, has shipped its first product – a specialty chemical for use in environmental remediation, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and other industries.

The company opened its doors in May 2011 and today employs five people. AGAE licensed the patented technology from OSU and has conducted its own research on cost-effective, high-yield processes for manufacturing a compound known as a rhamnolipid biosurfactant.

Xihou Yin, Oregon State University College of Pharmacy (Photo: Karl Maasdam)
Xihou Yin, Oregon State University College of Pharmacy (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Surfactants, also known as “surface active agents,” are commonly used in personal and household products, paints and manufacturing processes to enhance cleaning, wetting, dispersion and emulsification. Synthesized by the newly discovered NY3 strain of the common bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, AGAE Technologies’ rhamnolipid biosurfactants “are nontoxic, environmentally benign and completely biodegradable,” said company CEO Harrison Parks.

Biosurfactants are a novel group of microbial compounds, which are made by living cells. “The increasing use of biosurfactants is being driven by technology breakthroughs, environmental awareness and tightening of regulations regarding chemical surfactants,” Parks added.

101 Active Licenses

AGAE is one of the latest companies to commercialize OSU research. In 2011, the university increased licensing revenues by 63 percent with 101 “active” technology licenses from mass spectrometry to mold and yeast inhibitors. “We are taking steps to help accelerate innovation through our partnerships with start ups like AGAE, as well as with established companies,” said Ron Adams, OSU executive associate vice president for research. “AGAE’s rapid move to sales is an example of the results of our effort.”

Xihou Yin, president and founder of AGAE Technologies and senior research faculty member in the OSU College of Pharmacy, has received customer inquiries from North America and Europe. “We are now able to meet their demand with laboratory research-grade rhamnolipids, and we are developing commercial-grade products of various purity specifications for pharmaceuticals, environmental bioremediation, personal care and several other application segments.”

Rhamnolipids contain L-rhamnose and β-hydroxyl fatty acids, with amphiphilic properties (both hydrophilic and hydrophobic). Based on Yin’s research, AGAE Technologies is now producing a product known as R-95 (HPLC/MS-grade) rhamnolipids, allowing the company to become the only known supplier of pure rhamnolipid compounds to the world market.

Cutting Costs

“Rhamnolipids were discovered about 60 years ago,” Yin said. “The real bottleneck to replacing synthetic chemicals with biosurfactants like rhamnolipids is the high cost of production. We are applying the latest genome sequencing technologies to strain improvement for NY3 and creating a nonpathogenic, high-yield rhamnolipid producer. Using renewable low-cost sources of ingredients, we are optimistic about further increasing the yields, reducing costs by scaling up production and promoting the global applications of these very eco-friendly biosurfactant molecules.”

Parks noted that the company already has a list of potential customers interested in applying the compounds to their products. “The industry expanse is quite broad, from pharmaceutical and cosmetics-grade customers to biopesticide, soil enhancement, bioremediation and oil spill/tank cleaning companies,” he added. “And it is international. All of our customers are asking AGAE for evaluation quantities and are interested in exploring our potential to become a strategic supplier.”

In addition to Parks, who has over 25 years of international technology sales and marketing experience, AGAE also has hired Martha Cone to oversee technical operations and to manage customer technical engagement.