A Danville company responsible for scientific discoveries impacting both biofuels and beer is expanding its home base, and the owners believe they are poised for innovation in some new areas.
After first opening in 2005, Ferm Solutions Inc. has operated with a relatively low profile from its Roy Arnold Boulevard headquarters since 2008, when its national operations were consolidated in the former Rexel Electronics building.
Founders Shane Baker and Dr. Pat Heist, who were University of Kentucky classmates, focused at first on the effects of yeast on ethanol-based fuel making and controlling bacteria in the fermentation process of brewing and distilling alcohol. While research has led to a number of products in those areas, they say some of what they have learned could have applications in medicine and agriculture.
In December, Ferm Solutions announced it would invest $1 million in a new 3,750-square-foot technology center for research and development, as well as training for companies that make biofuel. The company also received a $75,000 forgivable loan from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority and a grant of up to $25,000 in economic development bond money.
The $100,000 is contingent on the company adding at least five new jobs to what currently is 12 people on staff in Danville and 16 total across the country. Baker, a Garrard County High School graduate, hopes the new training and research and development space will be filled with even more highly trained employees.
The expansion is already under way and is set to open this summer.
Despite the economy, Baker said business has continued to be strong, with more clients meaning more offices in both the midwest and plains states. The company also continues to do business in Central and South America, Europe and Asia.
“We started out very regionalized, but after we swept up a lot of market share in surrounding states, we have continued to grow geographically and have kind of marched west,” Baker said.
The next big step, though, could open up entirely new markets for the company.
Heist said Ferm Solutions has met its goal of developing at least one new offering that can be commercialized every 12-18 months since the company began and now offers a number of proprietary yeast products, as well discoveries such as an air filter that help maintain purity during fermentation. Heist and Baker say their work on preventing bacteria has led to establishing a natural products division that sets them up for breakthroughs in both pharmaceuticals and plant science.
“We see ways that natural antimicrobials could have uses, and now we are challenged to bring those to commercialization,” Baker said. “That means more research.”
The new building will be used to provide training for companies that produce fuel ethanol, something Ferm Solutions has been doing for years but needs more room to accommodate larger groups. Heist said they will be able to offer everything from an “Ethanol 101” crash course for new employees to more in-depth instruction on the ethanol process for plant managers or lab managers who want to improve their programs and learn how to troubleshoot various problems they may experience.
Education on both a small and large scale have been integral to the growth of the company, and Heist said that won’t change.
There will likely be community education classes to teach people about what the company does. Heist, a former biology professor at Pikeville University, said Ferm Solutions has developed collaborative partnerships with several of the state’s research institutions, including UK, through a number of grants.
The company has forged what both sides say has become a mutually beneficial partnership with Centre College through an internship program Heist started three years ago. Since 2009, six Centre students, most of them junior or senior biology majors, have completed internships.
Centre professor Peggy Richey, who also studied at UK and knew Heist, said her Centre students have benefitted from the opportunity to see applications for biology and do research themselves.
“We have other internships that allow students to do academic research and explore health-care careers, but we really hadn't had one that allows students to do research for industry,” Richie said. “It has been great.”
The students, who receive course credit, spend time working on projects that typically involve improving yeast performance in fermentation or in developing new antibacterials.
For example, Heist said a current intern is examining oxygen levels in yeast propagation and fermentation, which are vital for making fuel ethanol. Those results can be used directly to help customers improve their fuel-making process
“We usually see the enthusiasm build throughout the term as the student begins accumulating enough data to start understanding what is going on and how their work has helped with our understanding of the process,” Heist said.
Internships are one of the experiences Centre promises every student and one Richie said increasing numbers of students eagerly seek out as graduation looms. The role students take on at Ferm Solutions is unique, however, because of their level of immersion in all aspects of both the science and the business.
One former intern, Katie McKenna, has been hired by Ferm Solutions after graduation before returning to graduate school. Richie said another intern has decided to pursue an advanced degree in microbiology in part because of his internship experience.
Jody Lassiter, president and chief executive officer of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, lauded the company for investing in the future workforce. He said Ferm Solutions’ progress can be used as an example for similar enterprises.
“Ferm Solutions’ decision to locate and then to undertake a significant expansion in Danville rather than elsewhere demonstrates that high-technology companies can thrive here,” Lassiter said.
If the company can continue to produce new ideas and lure new business at the current pace, Baker said even more jobs can be created. While the expansion likely has maxed out the current space, he said the company would like to continue to grow in the area.
“People have asked us ‘why Danville,’ and we always say ‘why not,’” said Baker.
“The building price here was lower than it would have been other places. We have continued to be able to get talented people, we have not had problems with distribution, and we have been working with a county that makes doing business here easy for us.”