Business

Custom bacteria fuel Wichita company's growth

Chemical fertilizers are so 20th century. Biology is the hot new way to continue boosting plant growth, and a Wichita company says it is grabbing a lead position for the future.

Alpha BioSystems, 9912 W. York, has developed a series of bacteria cocktails to stimulate plants and consume organic waste for farmers, gardeners and industries.

The company has just 13 employees but sees a bright future.

Company president Eric Borland projects sales growth at 1,000 percent over the next three to four years. The company doesn't release actual sales figures.

About two-thirds of sales are to agricultural users. It markets two related lines of products: Terra-One is applied to farm fields to aid crop growth. Safe-One helps breaks down the massive amounts of animal waste that accumulate at feedlots, dairies and chicken houses.

Another quarter of its sales comes from a line of organic growth aids called Thrive that it sells through garden centers, including several in Wichita.

Alpha BioSystems originated in the 1990s as a maker of biological products to up clean oil waste. Scott Schwindaman, a Wichitan who is president and CEO of Lubrication Engineers, bought Alpha BioSystems in 2007 because he saw the potential for the products, Borland said.

It was Schwindaman who decided to change direction and push for faster growth.

A small percentage of the company's sales still come from a biological oil clean-up product called MicroClean, but Borland said the company really doesn't have time to market it adequately.

Now that the company has picked its direction, it's starting to execute that strategy.

Borland, who has a long history with some of Wichita's best-known entrepreneurs — most recently with the Hayes family's former Fence Corp. —said coming to work is fun when your prospects are so good.

"I've been in different companies where you go to endless meetings about what's the new color for next year or how to get to two points of market share," he said. "Here we come in every day and it is wide open in terms of what opportunity to work on next."

Organic is hot

The company has a suite of offices, a warehouse and a lab in its building.

In the lab, workers grow multiple, specific strains of bacteria. Borland said the product contains 18 to 30 species of bacteria, each with a specific functions.

The bacteria work to break down constituents in the soil, making them more digestible to crops, he said. It is designed to work with chemical fertilizers.

The company is working hard to identify distributors across the Midwest who already know local farmers. It now has 28, Borland said.

Lorren Coffin, who works for a company that sells agricultural compost near Amarillo, Texas, has also sold Terra-One for three years.

Starting small, he has been able to push the business to about 25,000 acres this year, and hopes to keep doubling and tripling that each year.

The way Coffin pitches it, the product costs $12.18 per acre per planting cycle and he says farmers are reporting an increase of five to 10 bushels an acre. With corn at $6 to $7 per bushel, he said farmers are seeing a profit of roughly $20 to $60 per acre, depending on yield. On a 1,000-acre farm, that adds up nicely, he said.

Selling to farmers is always hard, he said. They're tight with their money, and they want to see hard proof. Fortunately, given enough time, the product sells itself.

"To be honest, with this product, the word of mouth is pretty darn good," he said.

The company's goal is to have its products on a million acres across the Great Plains within five years.

For gardeners

Borland said the company sees gardeners as a natural for its product, but that it will take longer to penetrate because of the economy.

"We picked the most beautiful time in the world in the last three years to come to market," Borland said, with a laugh. "(Retailers) can't get excited about risking inventory dollars for something different. They want something proven on their shelves."

He did talk Johnson's Garden Centers in Wichita into carrying Thrive three years ago.

Jeremy Johnson, president of the garden center, said he has tried the product at home and likes it. His vegetables are healthier and grow faster, he said.

It remains a niche product for organic gardeners, Johnson said. Most people still tend to ask just for chemical fertilizer.

"But it's becoming more mainstream," Johnson said.

Time is on their side, Borland said. There isn't anything else quite like their products — the company is guarding their exact makeup closely. In fact, he said they haven't gone to Kansas State University for testing because they fear giving up control of the formulas.

But the proof is in the results, Borland said. The products works.

Now it's up to them to push more and more of it out the door.

"They're lofty visions," Borland said. "And the beautiful thing is that all it is right now is a math problem."

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