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Company Profile: Greensboro Firm Develops Synthetic Bait for Lobster, Crab Fisheries

FAST FACTS

  • Founded in 2014 by Greensboro scientists at Gateway University Research Park
  • Seeking $1 million investment to trigger $500K NSF matching grant
  • OrganoBait is an effective synthetic attractant for lobster, crab fisheries
  • Ecologically friendly alternative to declining stocks of important forage fish

By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer

Yum! Crabs and lobsters are attracted to variations of Kepley BioSystems' synthetic "nano-muffins." -- Kepley BioSystems photos

It’s the ultimate bait and switch.

A lobster or crab is drawn to a foul odor, reeking of dead fish, on the ocean floor. The crustacean thinks it’s a tasty meal of herring, menhaden or other decaying fish, only to discover too late that it’s an inedible, artificial disk. By then the fooled creature is caught in a trap, destined to be hauled ashore and become someone’s seafood dinner.

Outsmarting crustaceans is the premise of OrganoBait, an artificial bait being developed for commercial and recreational crabbers and lobster trappers by Kepley BioSystems, a startup company in Greensboro.

OrganoBait is a fully synthetic lure made without any fish or animal byproducts. It is a water-soluble mixture of calcium and chemo-attractant scents that mimic the foul odors of dead and decaying fish that hungry crustaceans find so irresistible. 

If successful, OrganoBait could benefit both the $66 billion global crustacean fishing industry and ocean ecosystems alike, says company President Anthony Dellinger, Ph.D.

For crabbers and lobster trappers, OrganoBait could be easier to buy, store and use than the herring, menhaden, anchovy, mackerel and other natural baits they have used for centuries. Dellinger says the synthetic bait attracts crustaceans, requires no refrigeration, won’t spoil, is in constant supply, is environmentally sustainable, and can compete with fish bait on price.

For ocean ecosystems, OrganoBait could ease the over-harvesting of forage fish, which are eaten by larger fish, birds and mammals. Forage fish are used not only for crab and lobster fishing, but for aquaculture and the production of Omega-3 fish oil supplements, livestock feed and cat food.

About 40 billion pounds of forage fish  ̶  at least a third of the annual global harvest  ̶ goes to crustacean fishing, and demand is growing, Dellinger says. Declining stocks disrupt the ocean food web, depriving sea birds, whales, sea turtles, dolphins, seals and fish of a critical food source.

“We need to pay more attention to forage fish not only for industry but for the environment,” Dellinger says. With OrganoBait, “We think we’ve solved an environmental problem and addressed a pain point for other industries that are using forage fish. Our technology enters a market that needs some technological advancement.”

Born on a Caribbean beach

As with many inventions, the idea for OrganoBait came through serendipity.

Terry Brady, a retired inventor and healthcare technology executive living on Anguilla, an island in the eastern Caribbean, was walking on the beach there one day when he observed local fishermen struggling with fish baits for their spiny lobster traps.

There had to be a better way, he thought.

Anthony Dellinger (left) and Christopher Kepley believe Kepley BioSystems is ready to bring OrganoBait to fisheries around the world.

Brady consulted with Christopher Kepley and Dellinger, his colleagues at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaborative graduate program of the University of North Carolina Greensboro and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Kepley, a UNCG associate professor, Dellinger, then a Ph.D. student, and Brady, a consultant to the nanoscience school, began mulling the idea of synthetic baits based on the biochemistry of decaying forage fish.

“Once we dove into it, we saw that we were on the verge of something huge,” Dellinger recalls.

The trio incorporated their company in 2014 and located it in lab and office space provided by the Joint School’s Nanomanufacturing Innovation Consortium on the south campus of Gateway University Research Park in Greensboro. The strategic location gives Kepley BioSystems convenient access to student interns and $60 million worth of research equipment and infrastructure next door at the Joint School.

Finding the right recipe

Company scientists set about identifying the particular substances emitted by dead and decaying forage fish that attract crustaceans. They tested these biomolecules for their ability to stimulate olfactory receptor neurons (think of them as smell cells) that cluster on the antennae of lobsters. 

Then, like Colonel Sanders testing his “secret blend of 11 herbs and spices” for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the scientists tried numerous recipes of chemo-attractants and materials.

The winning formula not only had to mimic the yummy smells of decaying fish but also the gradual release of those scents into the water.

The most claw-licking-good recipe turned out to be a dissolvable matrix of calcium sulfate and various scent molecules, mixed in a certain concentration.

“The guts of it are a patented mixture,” Dellinger says. “That’s all my blood, sweat and tears.”

Subsequent tinkering with the chemistry has led to several formulations of OrganoBait, each tailored to a particular crustacean and to the specific practices of local fisheries. Some baits are designed to dissolve in three days and others in 10 days, depending on how long fishermen like to leave them in traps.

‘Like making bread’

OrganoBait is made by pouring a proprietary mixture of chemicals into molds and then letting them solidify at room temperature. 

“Once you have it down, it’s like making bread, Dellinger says. “It’s not very challenging.”

In his office, Dellinger pulls out an OrganoBait wrapped in plastic. The off-white disk is dense, slightly waxy and only faintly fishy. It’s variously described as resembling a hockey puck, a muffin or a urinal cake. Dellinger keeps one on his desk as a paperweight.

The baits have a long shelf life. Dellinger has one of the first ones, made four years ago, and it’s still holding up, like the infamous Twinkie that never decays.

The OrganoBait product line is adapted to geography and species.

All of the components used to manufacture OrganoBait are inorganic chemicals available through well-defined supply chains worldwide. The constant availability ensures that OrganoBait can be in steady supply at a stable price during peak fishing season, unlike some traditional fish baits, which vary in availability and price, Dellinger says.

For now, OrganoBait is hand-molded, but automated production is on the horizon. Dellinger pulls out a drawing of a simple system that is designed to make 4,000 baits per hour.

He envisions distributing these manufacturing modules to fishing communities and training local people to operate them using company-supplied raw ingredients as feed stock.

“We would provide them with the secret sauce, and they would manufacture,” Dellinger says. “The company would concentrate on the attractants, not manufacturing and distribution.”

The modules, which could be built for about $120,000 each, would put production into the hands of local people known and trusted by the fishing communities and would provide local jobs, Dellinger says.

The company has submitted a grant proposal for the module to the National Science Foundation’s Technology Enhancement for Commercial Partnerships (TECP) program, which helps phase two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grantees attract corporate partnerships to commercialize their products. 

Seeking private investment

Funding for research and development of OrganoBait has come from state and federal sources: a small grant from the North Carolina Sea Grant program, phase one and two NSF SBIR grants, and a matching grant from the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology and Innovation.

With its product R&D maturing, Kepley BioSystems is now focused on raising private capital to take OrganoBait into the marketplace.

“We need an outside investment,” Dellinger says. “The number one goal for us this year is to raise $1 million.”

Reaching that threshold would trigger a $500,000 matching grant from the NSF for business development, he says.

He would like the private investment to come from someone in North Carolina, a state with a substantial blue crab fishery, but he is open to investors everywhere, including Europe, which he says is particularly “savvy to this industry.”

Kepley BioSystems is one of 50 “deeptech” startup companies invited to present to European investors at a conference in Paris in October 2016. Kepley was chosen by the conference’s sponsor, Hello Tomorrow, an international non-profit organization run by science entrepreneurs that helps early-stage startups commercialize science-based inventions and solutions.

Dellinger is confident that an investment will come because “we have a disruptive technology” that has been “vetted by the best science foundation on earth.”

When sufficient investment is in hand, the company will start selling OrganoBait on a pilot basis in the markets where it has been tested and the demand for it has been validated.

That is likely to be in Florida, where tests with stone crab have been the most successful to date, he says.

‘Will that bait fish?’

Adoption of OrganoBait by commercial fisherman is critical for Kepley BioSystems to capture a share of the $20 billion global bait market for crustacean fishing.

“Winning them over is the biggest complexity, after finishing off the science,” Dellinger says.

Nonetheless, he is confident fishermen will embrace the product once it hits the water.

“They know exactly how challenging it is to get steady supplies of bait at sufficient cost,” he says, “so they’re extremely receptive to alternative technology. When you tell them the bonuses (of OrganoBait), they’re even more excited.”

For decades bait makers and fishermen have tried various baits using ground up horseshoe crab, cowhide, pigs’ feet, kerosene-soaked socks, cotton wadding dipped in fish oil and other stinky devices, but with mixed success.

With OrganoBait, fishermen will find themselves asking the equivalent of, “Will that dog hunt?”

“Will that bait fish?”

Initial tests have indicated that, yes, it will.

The company in 2014 sent OrganoBait to a small group of seafood professionals in Florida, North Carolina, California and the British West Indies to test in their traps for blue crab, stone crab and spiny lobster. Half of the 180 traps were set with OrganoBait and the other half with menhaden and other flesh baits.

Although the trial was too small to yield statistically significant results, OrganoBait performed as well as, or better than, the flesh baits.

The trial results are reported in the July edition of the science journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

The next test will be larger-scale trials involving about 200 traps set by Canadian lobster trappers in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. Those trials are set to begin in November 2016. 

This high-tech way to cut bait is poised to become an ecological game-changer – and to bring a sweet new bouquet to the smell of money.

Comments

I like the idea, it is definitely a step in the right direction. My biggest concern as of now would be the fact that the bait is not edible, I believe the crab needs the sustenance the natural bait provides in order to survive the time between entrapment and processing. Which in reality can be many days. No food value at all in the bait could lead to more dead loss, weight loss, and stress. I may be missing something here that truely addresses my concerns so correct me if I'm wrong.

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