Winston-Salem Company Delivers ‘Soil to Oil’ Solutions
By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
“Better than flax. Not from fish.”
That’s the simple value proposition for a new plant-based oil rich in nutritional omega fatty acids being launched by Technology Crops International (TCI) of Winston-Salem.
The oil, derived from the seeds of a plant called ahiflower, has four times more omega acid content than flaxseed oil, weight for weight, and offers other nutritional advantages that have emerged from two clinical trials, says Andrew Hebard, TCI’s founder, president and chief executive officer.
The oil “was a huge discovery for us,” says Hebard, who believes TCI’s AhiFlower Oil will be “a game-changer” in the nutritional supplements market, which has traditionally relied on omega acids found in fish, flaxseed or chia seed oils. Multiple studies have shown that consuming essential fatty acids is important to mobility and joint health, cardiovascular health and cognition and brain health.
TCI’s Nature’s Crops International division is beginning to market AhiFlower Oil products from its online ahiflower.com website as well as with partners through retail outlets and e-commerce channels, primarily as a dietary supplement but also as a food and beverage ingredient.
The oil has passed regulatory muster in the United States and Europe and is under review in Korea, Japan and Australia. “We’re very deep on science and regulatory approvals,” Hebard says.
A 10-year, $10 million investment
Hebard realized a decade ago that declining oil-fish stocks were presenting a new opportunity to provide plant-based sources of omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids. His company, which “trolls through the plant world to identify crops that have new value,” came across Buglossoides arvensis, or ahiflower, a small annual or biennial herb native to the northern Middle East.
Ahiflower proved to have "a phenomenal acid profile” but was difficult to grow, he says. His team began to improve yields and boost fatty acid content through classical selective breeding while also developing agronomic practices for farming the crop in the northern hemisphere.
After 10 years and $10 million of development and clinical trials, ahiflower is now in production on a few thousand acres, mostly in Canada and the United Kingdom, which offer a cooler maritime climate where the plant thrives.
AhiFlower Oil is the newest product in TCI’s portfolio of specialty oils, and Hebard expects it will eventually become a top seller. For now, the company relies on oils from borage, meadowfoam, abyssinica, rapeseed and blackseed for most of its revenue.
The crops that yield all of these oils are grown under contract to TCI by about 1,000 farmers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K and other locations. About 60,000 acres are in production.
The crop seeds are pressed and refined into oil at the company’s manufacturing and lab facility on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and then shipped to business customers for use as ingredients in the dietary supplement, specialty food and personal care markets.
Hebard, a native of Suffolk, England, who graduated with honors in agricultural science, moved to North Carolina in 2002 when his employer, a British food company, assigned him to the United States and allowed him to choose his location. He says he selected Winston-Salem for its vibrant scientific, business and arts communities, moderate climate and access to the mountains and coast.
|Andrew Hebard, TCI founder, president and CEO. -- Photos courtesy of Technology Crops International|
Soon after relocating, he saw that the specialty oils market was fragmented and thought it could benefit from a more integrated and steadier supply chain.
He created TCI in 2004 aiming to “tie it all together” as a vertically integrated company with a turnkey solution to overcome supply problems.
“Being fully integrated from ‘soil to oil’ in all our products allows greater reliability, traceability and predictability than buying through purely ‘brokered’ channels,” the company explains on its website.
“We’re highly specialized and tightly managed,” Hebard adds. “The farmers are assured a known and steady market for production, and the end customer gets a steady supply of materials.”
TCI, a private company, operated for its first five years with founder’s money until 2009, when a private-equity partner, the Rural American Fund of Chicago, stepped in with investment. The company has grown steadily since then.
“Consistent with North Carolina’s vibrant ag ecosystem of innovative development, Technology Crops International has evolved from a contract producer/supplier of specialty crops to a pioneer in novel health and nutrition supplements with unique brands targeted directly at consumers,” says Scott Johnson, vice president of agricultural biotechnology at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
Today, TCI has 35 employees in various locations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Four people work at the corporate headquarters in Winston-Salem.
“We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are today without a phenomenal team around me,” Hebard says. “They are first-rate people and have really worked together in what was a startup. I’m really quite pleased and proud of how it’s grown.”
The company is working with North Carolina State University and the Biotechnology Center to identify and develop other novel specialty crops, and it has some seeds and grains in early development, says Hebard, who serves on the Biotechnology Center’s Advisory Committee for Biotechnology in the Piedmont Triad.
“We’re very motivated for future growth,” he says.