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Discovery by bugs

Lamberton, Minn. — When Lee and Joann French first started breeding red corn, they were looking for hybrids that would be bad for pests. In a serendipitous twist, they found a hybrid that’s good for people.

They’ve turned that discovery into a new business, Suntava, which will produce natural-food colors and antioxidants from the Frenches’ red corn.

For nearly 30 years, the Frenches have supplied research insects to universities and chemical and seed companies to test pesticides and new plant genetics. Internationally-known French Agricultural Research Inc. rears corn borers, corn rootworms, black cutworms and half a dozen other major corn pests.

The Frenches’ climate-controlled labs in Lamberton produce about 350 million insect eggs a year, says Lee, an entomologist and professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. His wife, Joann, a biologist and chemist, spends summers collecting fresh “livestock” from farm fields all over the Upper Midwest. That’s necessary, she says, because corn pests are continually adapting.

Bugs to plants About a dozen years ago, the Frenches started searching for genes to improve insect, drought and disease resistance. Using traditional breeding methods, they drew on ancient maize strains, looking at “many different populations from all over the world,” Lee says.

The Frenches and their team of plant breeders were especially interested in the properties of red maize, which gets its intense color from plant pigments called anthocyanins, which are also flavonoids that contribute to good health.

Help from AURIIn 2002, the Frenches turned to AURI’s Dennis Timmerman for help researching the commercial potential of their new red maize hybrid.

AURI helped secure a $100,000 USDA Rural Development grant for the project. The Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council and AURI also provided research money. The grants enabled the Frenches to identify the pigments and antioxidants in their new hybrid and test their properties. Later, AURI supported development of Suntava’s proprietary extraction and refining methods. “AURI did a good job of helping us avoid the common pitfalls of start-ups,” Joann says. “That was one thing we needed.”

In 2007, the Frenches hired Bill Petrich to get the business up and running. Petrich spent 10 years with Schwan Food Company developing new businesses and product launches for the Marshall- based food company.

The Frenches had envisioned putting up a manufacturing plant in Lamberton. But that was putting the cart before the horse, Petrich told them. The first step in launching a successful new product, he says, is to ask: “What’s the market? Who are your customers? How will you get it to market? How will it be financed?”

Petrich charted a course of slow, deliberate growth for Suntava: “Start small, identify customers, farm out the manufacturing, and prove there’s a market for the product. Then decide if it makes sense to build a plant. Our focus now is on research and development, and sales and marketing.”

Petrich’s first task was to raise start-up money. He worked with Twin Cities-based Northland Securities to put together a half-million dollars in bridge financing, giving Suntava immediate access to cash. Northland Securities also helped raise private investment capital. Suntava completed itsinitial capitalization in February, exceeding its equity goal, Petrich says.

Earlier this year, Suntava received FDA approval for its red dye, Sayela TM Colorant, which will be manufactured by a local co-processor. Suntava is now seeking patent protections for its pigments and extraction process.

The Frenches also started a non-GMO corn-breeding company, Red Rock Genetics, which has applied for a patent on Suntava Red Maize and is continuing to develop new red corn hybrids, Lee French says.

Bringing the Frenches’ concept to market has been “up and down,” common with start-ups, Petrich says. He recalls the day an investor check arrived the very afternoon that a loan payment was due. It’s been a rewarding experience, too, he says, especially “working with people in rural Minnesota.”