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It’s hard to say just when ground will break for Triton’s manufacturing center but when it does, Paris will be home to some cutting-edge biotechnology.
“It looks real positive. It’s a big opportunity,” Paris Economic Development Corp. Director Steve Gilbert told a small crowd gathered at Love Civic Center to hear from some of the people behind what has so far been mostly known as Project Jewel. “I think we’re lucky to have these folks looking at us, because they could probably go anywhere.”
Triton will manufacture a protein known as milk amyloid A, frequently just called MAA. Which is fitting, since it’s found in mother’s milk. Except the stuff Triton’s making is coming out of algae.
“The benefit of this is this is such a simple product. It’s mother’s milk,” Dr. Jason Pyle said. “We’re producing a synthetic version. There’s a market for it right now.”
MAA stimulates mucus production in the gut, which helps to shield against bacterial and viral infection. It can be used to help create milk replacer for cows — a field that has not seen any new development in years, Dr. Bill Julien said. A veterinarian, Julien has long worked in the biotechnology field and currently serves as president of Biovance Technologies.
“I’m a mercenary. I smelled money,” he said. “The potential use of this protein is much broader than what we’re talking about today.”
It could help prevent mortality in livestock. It could be used in conjunction with existing drugs that haven’t been very effective to make them more efficient.
There are also potential human applications. One of the world’s biggest killers is dysentery in third-world countries. A cheap source of MAA could help get that under control. Julien also sees it potentially acting as a supplement for treatments for intestinal problems like cancer or Crohn’s disease. It may even have over-the-counter uses.
“You could take this prior to going out to dinner,” he said. “If there is bad guacamole, you won’t have the adverse reactions.”
Pharmaceutical companies already make such complex proteins at great cost and effort. Getting algae to do the work for you drops the difficulty and cost dramatically.
“If you made it as a pharmaceutical, there’s no way a farmer could afford to use it,” Pyle said. “If you grow it in algae, it’s thousands of times cheaper.”
Algae is a type of plant. The species includes kelp, but much of it is single-celled. And it can be relatively easily manipulated to produce all sorts of things, from oil to vaccines to industrial-grade enzymes.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to make therapeutic proteins in algae,” said Dr. Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. “Because it’s agricultural, that means you have the ability to go to a very large scale and do it economically.”
Mayfield has worked with algae for 25 years, including biomedical research. He started Rincon Pharmaceutical to make human proteins for therapeutic uses from algae. The traditional method for such complex proteins is to use Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, but it costs much more than using algae. An effort in 2006 to seek funding to expand Rincon led to the creation of Sapphire Energy, a biofuel company.
Sapphire now has more than 200 employees with research facilities in San Diego and production in New Mexico. Pyle, who described himself as a “serial biotech entrepreneur,” is a co-founder of the company, established to make jet fuel, which can be difficult to refine from oil. Its work in New Mexico has yielded enormous amounts of production.
The effort in Paris will be much the same. But where Sapphire Energy spent $30 million to $40 million learning how to get the job done, those lessons mean the cost to set up here will be less — more like $10 million, Pyle said.
There were things about New Mexico that Sapphire didn’t want to repeat with Triton. Algae “farming” is a lot like rice farming and requires standing water, which can be difficult to obtain in the desert. Also, the arid climate leads to a lot of water evaporation. The desert also has high temperature swings — more than 100 during the day to the 40s at night — that can be hard on algae.
On the other hand, Paris is more humid, has readily available water and the temperatures are more stable. Even winter is typically warmer than in the high desert.
Triton has received a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation for animal trials. Pig trials are expected within the next couple of weeks since pigs have many physiological similarities to humans.
“The beauty of this is we already know it works,” Julien said. “This experiment is to validate the delivery system.”
The company has a roughly three-year schedule to develop what Pyle said will be one of the most sophisticated algae production facilities in the world.
“We haven’t picked a site yet, but we looked at some nice locations today,” he said.
Triton is expected to bring 312 new jobs and $36.3 million in capital investment to Paris over a five-year period. Based on their experience with Sapphire Energy, Triton will mostly need production technicians. They have found that skills found in agricultural technicians and wastewater treatment personnel transfer well to their efforts.
“There’s some time before that starts to happen,” Gilbert said. “It takes a lot of time for these things to come forward.”
There are still some things up in the air. Triton needs the marketing study to know exactly how big to build and how fast. There’s also still the detail of finding a suitable site. Once it’s rolling, Pyle said Triton could likely get on the ground, start manufacturing and sell its first product in the same year.
“It’s easy to pick a region,” Pyle said. “It’s hard to pick a specific site. So many little, tiny things matter.”
PEDC has agreed to work with Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) and Texas Engineering Extension
Services (TEEX) to complete a market analysis and site and facilities plan for the project. In all, PEDC has agreed to spend up to $250,000 for the project.
PEDC got involved as Gilbert talked with Mark Lacek at Paris Milling about expanding facilities there. Gilbert met Julien and talked to him about Paris Milling’s project, which lead to a discussion about PEDC’s plans and resources.
Triton fits squarely within PEDC’s plan to target companies that would be a good fit in Paris, particularly agribusiness.
“We’ve got a long history of industry and agriculture,” Gilbert said. “This company is both of those.”