Aerospace targeted by chemical manufacturer

September 14, 2009
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HOLLAND — Aerospace is propelling Afid Therapeutics Inc., the lone company using the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute in Holland.

Afid Therapeutics, founded in 2004 by MSU Professor Rawle Hollingsworth, recently landed three federal orders for “a new high purity reactant.” Some 1,500 pounds of the substance is expected to ship shortly, according to an Afid press release.

The carbohydrate-based substance is used in propulsion, Hollingsworth said, and like Afid’s pharmaceutical products now in the marketplace, is based on plant material. He said it is not explosive, but because of national security issues, he said he could reveal little more.

“I can’t say a lot about it because it’s a new reactant that is used in launch systems, and our clients, our customers, want us to be as vague about it as possible,” said Hollingworth, who teaches graduate chemistry classes at MSU and holds appointments in a variety of disciplines there. “There are some national security issues. The end user is the federal government.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Michigan Business Report last year stated that Afid Therapeutics was turning its expertise in biomass-based chemistry to develop a rocket fuel based on renewable sources for the U.S. military.

“It’s the same material that we use in our pharmaceutical pipeline and we can get it on scale pretty quickly. Why not just move forward with it and fill the breech?” Hollingsworth told Michigan Business Report. 

Some 16 to 18 Afid employees are working in the manufacturing space at the MSU BEI in the former Pfizer facility in Holland, Hollingsworth said. Another dozen or so work in research and development, marketing and other jobs near MSU in East Lansing, he said.

Afid concentrates on using the byproducts from the processing of corn, such as stalks, and sugar beets into carbohydrate-based chemistry. The company has literally hundreds of carbohydrate-created chemical products that are sold to dozens of pharmaceutical research and production companies, and used for such research by Afid.

But new products such as the fuel, soap, detergent, a replacement for the environmental threat phosphate, personal care products and others will send Afid into the industrial real estate market to seek manufacturing space within two years, Hollingsworth said.

He said he is interested in re-using one of Michigan’s production facilities that has been shut down, likely one that processed sugar beets. Most sugar beet processing in Michigan today occurs in the Thumb, but the sugar beet industry — born at MSU in the late 19th century as a replacement for the lumber industry — once had as many as two dozen production plants in the state.

Afid’s variety of products, both on the market and in development, form the center of Hollingsworth’s vision of creating a new chemical industry in Michigan based on carbohydrates.

“The next step is to build a much larger facility,” Hollingsworth said. “We aim to produce billions of pounds per year. Some products are 100 pounds; that’s the stuff we can make in the Pfizer facility. Other stuff, we’ll need to be in the millions of pounds per year. The plan is for us to re-purpose facilities that were used before. There are quite a lot of manufacturing facilities in Michigan just lying there. The idea is for us to acquire facilities for that and transform them into new manufacturing entities.”

Plenty of economic development organizations are backing Hollingsworth’s vision for Afid and a green chemistry industry in Michigan. The 21st Century Jobs Trust Fund provided $1.66 million, and additional investments have come from the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan, Western Michigan University’s Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center, Ann Arbor Spark and an MSU Foundation forprofit subsidiary, IP Ventures.

“Rawle is very unique and special because the projects he looks at are so diverse,” said Jody Pollok-Newsom, executive director of the CMPM, a grower-run organization that has invested thousands into Afid Therapeutics’ research over the years.

“A lot of people have ideas. To take an idea, do research, develop a product and take it to commercialization, that’s really special. A lot of folks never get as far as commercialization.”

Hollingsworth said that Afid Therapeutics uses only laboratory space in the 138,000-square-foot MSU Bioeconomy Institute, adding that plenty of space is still available. The site includes a pilot plant and a building.

The Community Foundation of The Holland/Zeeland Area raised $5.2 million for a community endowment and more support came from Lakeshore Advantage, a business development group. Further funding from the state, however, was tied up in the Legislature last year and did not materialize.

Lakeshore Advantage’s Randy Olinger, manager of its BioBusiness Accelerator program located at the MSU BIE, was unavailable for comment.

Afid recently received $150,000 from an $8 million state fund intended to retain former Pfizer scientists who lost their jobs when the company left most of its Michigan facilities.

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