Innovesca bets on amaranth plants from Rwanda

Startup hopes to capitalize on American food movement


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Kale chips. Dandelion greens sauteed in butter and garlic. Wild ramp lemon risotto.

A foodie revolution that has turned former castaways of the American garden into centerpieces of the dinner table could turn a weed in Rwanda into a cash crop, if a local company's plan falls into place.

Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company started in Carnegie Mellon University's Project Olympus program, has inked a deal with Rwanda's Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources to grow and process the amaranth plant for retail sale.

Amaranth, or Dodo, as it's called in Rwanda, is a leafy green plant whose grain is already used in the United States for gluten-free flour. Innovesca co-founder Lacramioara Schulte auf'm Erley said the plant grows throughout the world, but in Rwanda, where it is so abundant it's known as "the plant from the gods," the idea of creating and marketing amaranth-based baby foods or energy bars was an easy sell.

"[The farmers] were so happy when they heard they can actually make money off of those plants. A lot of them work on coffee plantations and harvest [season] is only three months, so they are looking to increase income through other jobs," Ms. Erley said.

Co-founder Mary Beth Wilson said the idea of extracting the nutrition from sparsely used plants came from two separate inquires that came her way while pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon: one from a food company exploring how textural changes affect the taste of ketchup and another from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeking strategies to improve childhood nutrition.

Working off the theory that the method she created to alter ketchup texture could also release nutrients and enzymes in plants, she wrote a proposal that earned Carnegie Mellon University a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations program. The grant kicked off the work that led to Innovesca's current process, which processes vegetables in a way that preserves vitamins and nutrients that are normally lost during digestion.

A $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation has allowed the company to continue development of the technology and plan for commercialization. Innovesca has received support as part of the Oakland-based Idea Foundry's InterSector Accelerator Program, which provides a $10,000 investment to its companies.

Innovesca is in the process of licensing its technology from Carnegie Mellon.

While the company is currently all about amaranth, Ms. Wilson said research has begun into optimizing the nutrients in carrots and the goal is to do the same with traditional and non-traditional vegetables in coming years.

"You can take any kind of starting vegetable or fruit and determine the best way to process it so that you would maximize the nutrients your body can take up," she said, adding that humans are physically incapable of digesting plants in a way that would capture all of their available nutrients.

"I think it surprises people to know that when they eat a raw carrot, you can get only 40 percent of the nutrients out of it and the other 60 percent goes to waste," she said.

Although the idea was originally intended to be a solely philanthropic venture, Ms. Wilson decided to team up with Ms. Erley to commercialize the product once she realized its potential to create not only sustenance, but also income, for low-wage Rwandan farmers.

Ms. Erley, who is enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that although Rwanda has been named Africa's fastest growing economy for three years in a row, it is not without its share of problems. According to the World Bank, in 2010 44.9 percent of Rwandans earned wages below the poverty line. Ms. Erley said the annual income for farmers they visited was around $200.

"We believe working with [farmers] on amaranth, they can double that income and get out of poverty," she said.

Innovesca's multi-stage plan started last month with a trip to Rwanda to study the country's landscape and to secure deals with government officials, farmers and co-ops to grow crops and purchase seeds.

Next year the duo hopes to open doors of a small pilot facility, where amaranth leaves will be turned into a powder that will be the "optimized ingredient" for products such as baby food and energy bars.

The company is planning to reach out to food manufacturers in Rwanda and other east African countries that can create the products, sell the products independently and eventually team up with international power bar and other snack companies to sell and create products on a broader scale.

The hope is to export 5 to 10 tons of amaranth powder next year and to get the first products to the United States and into the hands of health-conscious baby boomers.

While Ms. Wilson and Ms. Erley offered no estimates of when they think amaranth will become America's next arugala, they think the country's whole food movement will give their venture more than a solid chance to thrive.

"Think about five years ago -- kale wasn't a normal household name, so it could be a similar situation for amaranth, Ms. Wilson said.

food - businessnews

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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