Picking for profit

Entrepreneur eyes Port Graham berries for new health product

Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2005


  Maureen McKenzie, founder and CEO of Denali Biotechnologies, picks berries near Whittier to make AuroraBlue. AuroraBlue is a dietary supplement that is thought to help prevent a variety of diseases. Photo courtesy of Denali Biotech

Maureen McKenzie, founder and CEO of Denali Biotechnologies, picks berries near Whittier to make AuroraBlue. AuroraBlue is a dietary supplement that is thought to help prevent a variety of diseases.

Photo courtesy of Denali Biotech

With a downturn in the fishing industry, Lloyd Stiassny has been looking for some additional economic opportunities for the village of Port Graham.

So Stiassny, president and CEO of Port Graham Corp., is excited about the opportunity for the village to capitalize on an abundance of berries nearby.

Anchorage biochemist Ma-ureen McKenzie has set her sights on gathering at least 50,000 pounds of Alaska black huckleberries and bog bilberries this season so her company, Denali Biotechnologies, can increase production of its product.

McKenzie is one of the founders and CEO of the company.

The berries are the critical ingredients in AuroraBlue gel caps, a relatively new product that McKenzie sees as an antidote for everything from aging to dementia. AuroraBlue is 90 percent black huckleberries and 10 percent bog bilberries, said McKenzie, who has been working on the product for a decade.

Stiassny said Port Graham could probably provide a good portion of the berries McKenzie needs for her product. The Port Graham Corp. is considering entering this venture.

"If it provides some jobs, we want to participate in that," he said. "We'd very much like to work with her in terms of developing local employment opportunities."

AuroraBlue is technically known as a nutraceutical, the formal name for a nutritional supplement, just as drugs are known as pharmaceuticals, McKenzie said. The product, so far sold only on the Internet, is aimed at "nutritionally savvy customers and health-care professionals concerned about dietary components that are essential, but not easy to get in the diet," she said.

"Initial response to Internet promotion has done way better than we hoped it would, even with modest advertising," McKenzie said in an interview April 21.

Inquiries on product purchase and distribution have come from as far away as Japan and several companies in Europe, she said. One company in the Rocky Mountain region wants to purchase and resell all the product that could be produced this year from 50,000 pounds of blueberries, she said.

Denali Biotechnologies has applied for a state permit for commercial blueberry harvesting on state lands and also is trying to negotiate use of some private lands owned by Alaska Native corporations, such as Port Graham, McKenzie said.

"We are looking at the maritime regions, from Ketchikan to Cold Bay, which is where the (black huckleberry) grows," she said. The bog bilberries grow north of Anchorage, she said.

McKenzie, who holds a combined doctorate in biochemistry from Rutgers and Princeton universities, developed the gel cap formula that involves drying the berries to produce granules that are combined with omega-3 fatty acids, among other ingredients. Roughly 250 pounds of raw blueberries when dried will produce about 18 1/2 pounds of dried material, enough to make about 90,000 gel caps, she said.

The patented formula is marketed in containers of 60 gel caps for $49.95, or 82 cents a gel cap, she said. Ingredients in the gel caps, namely the berries and an antioxidant called astaxanthin, work to rid the body of free radicals, cells that attack more stable cells. The berries themselves contain antioxidants that are soluble in water.

McKenzie said she sees the venture as an opportunity to improve rural economies, by paying village residents by the pound to pick the blueberries. She also hopes to deploy the company's own crews, up to 24 people, at two locations, she said.

"If there is sufficient interest in certain areas, we would set up buying stations between August and October and purchase them on site," she said.

Getting enough berry pickers to harvest such a large crop is only part of the challenge.

McKenzie said equipment she hoped to have on site in Palmer to dry the berries is not yet available, because funds from a grant she helped to write for the University of Alaska Fairbanks has not yet come through.

"We will be forced now to put the 50,000 pounds of berries in frozen storage or ship them out, probably to Tacoma, and have them processed out of state, instead of having them processed in Alaska by Alaskans," she said.

"If we didn't have to allocate so much of the budget to transportation and storage and outside contract processing, we could pay more per pound."

McKenzie's contact at the Fairbanks campus is Carol Lewis, dean of the College of Natural Resources.

"We are in the process of bringing the funding to the university and the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is working with us to make this happen as quickly as we can," Lewis said.

Lewis said the $1.65 million grant, which came through the office of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is aimed at providing economic development of the state's natural resources.

The funds will be used for field crop, greenhouse production and basic chemistry research at the Fairbanks campus, paying for berry pickers and for drying equipment for Denali Biotechnologies at the Palmer campus, she said. Administrative work on the funds, including setting up accounts on various projects, is in progress, a spokesperson for Lewis said.

Individuals or groups interested in berry picking this summer may contact McKenzie toll free at (877) 336-2540.

Information can be found on the Web at www.denali-biotechnologies.com.

Clarion reporter Mark Quiner contributed to this story.

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