Company founder Don Smith has been on a 25-year quest to improve the health of beef, sometimes directly, sometimes with unexpected foundations in other research and investigation. For example, much earlier in his career, beginning in 1989 as a cattle rancher, he used selective breeding techniques to maximize marbling of the beef while minimizing other fats.
Over the following years, Don founded several companies in the energy sector, including organizations involved in power cogeneration, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and biofuels. It was while working on a LNG development on the coast of Maine that Don first gained insight into the food chain that connected salmon to algae — a connection that would later point the way to his company’s major innovation. Specifically, at the base of the food chain were algae that produced high omega 3’s DHA and EPA; small fish ate the algae; and larger fish — notably salmon — ate the smaller fish. In the process, the salmon acquired the same high omega 3’s.
On a parallel and seemingly unrelated track, Don was experimenting with ways to grow algae adjacent to gas- and coal-fired power plants to sequester the CO2 emissions to reduce global climate change. Don planned to harvest the oil in the algae to make biofuels to substitute for oil imports.
The Birth of the Big Idea
The real breakthrough came in 2007, when Don was talking at his ranch in Oklahoma with animal science professors from Cornell and Oklahoma State Universities about cattle and the possibilities of improving the nutrition qualities of beef.
There was clear evidence that consumers were eating less beef and more chicken — although there were also signs that they were not totally happy with the compromise. More significantly, consumers were also eating more fish, encouraged by studies showing the omega 3’s in fish such as salmon and halibut were good, not only for the health of adults’ hearts and eyes, but also for brain development in children.
As the professors discussed how grass-fed cattle could actually produce beef with low levels of omega 3’s naturally, Don had an epiphany: why can’t we raise cattle on feed containing the same heart-healthy omega 3’s that fish acquire through their consumption of algae?
Sweating the Details
Thus began a new, more focused quest: first, to find the right kind of algae that would provide the maximum amount of the best kinds of omega 3’s, DHA and EPA. Second, Don needed to find a way to grow that algae cheaply and reliably.
One option was to renew his research into cultivation using the CO2 from power plant exhaust and sunlight for photosynthesis. But then Don managed to find an existing grower of a particular type of algae that might work even better. With his Oklahoma ranch, he funded research at Oklahoma State University to test his theory. After much trial and error, he found the right ratio of the algae to the other cattle feed ingredients. The proof was in the pudding: the cattle that were fed the mixture produced 140mg of omega 3’s DHA and EPA per steak.
There were still problems, however. First, the algae was fed sugar and grown in the dark. It was a natural algae with the inherent ability to draw sugar through the pores of its cell walls as an energy source, rather than sunlight. Second, Don thought the particular algae, while it worked with cattle, was too expensive to be economically viable.
Narrowing the Search
Don traveled from Hawaii to Arizona, from Colorado to Boston — and even to Israel — in search of the right technology to use sunlight and the exhaust of power plants. But after a three-year search for the ideal algae and a reliable low-cost technology, he abandoned the quest in early 2012.
Later that year, however, Don adjusted his strategy. He decided to renew his search for the most reliable supplier of algae of the type that would work with cattle. Don now recognized that his fundamental need was not to find a supplier with the lowest cost, but rather the highest reliability — and his refocused search led back to the original algae grower.
Then began the next phase: complex experimentation to develop an effective protocol for adding the algae to cattle feed in the precise right amounts. Too little of the supplement, and there were insufficient health benefits; too much, and the cattle weren’t interested in eating it.
Ultimately, Don and his team worked through the complex science to arrive at a truly new solution — an innovation that is poised to be the next step in the evolution of the beef industry. His company has now completed small-scale tests of its patented Omega3Beef process at two major universities with great success.
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