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Gifts from the Giving Tree

NRRI’s birch bark extractives get another chance at the health care market

Pelletized birch bark extractives. Pelletized birch bark extractives.

There’s a warehouse space in Two Harbors that is quite literally full of potential. It is filled with machinery and super-sacks of product that is garnering enthusiastic interest from personal care industries. This start-up company is called The Actives Factory and the next steps are to get the machinery running and the product out the door to potential markets. Brian Garhofer, president/salesman/bookkeeper, is gearing up to do just that this spring.

The products are at once common and unique — the extracted chemicals from the bark of birch trees. NRRI has been developing and patenting processes for these extractives for 15-some years so that the long-known health benefits in the bark can be used in lotions, soaps and dietary supplements. The bark pelletizing plant in Two Harbors was established by NaturNorth LLC, a company that the University of Minnesota (NRRI), Potlatch Corp., and Minnesota Power jointly launched in 2000 to market the birch extractives. But there were hurdles yet to overcome, according to Garhofer. The first hurdle was cost of the extractives.

"Initially, there was no commercial-scale process to extract the chemicals from the bark. It was only being done in small batches in labs, making it a very expensive product," said Garhofer. "NaturNorth spent a lot of money and effort to ramp up the production process and bring that cost down."

The second hurdle was solubility. The chemicals do not dissolve in water which makes it hard to deliver healthful benefits in topical applications. Working with NRRI chemist Pavel Krasutsky, however, they have developed new processes to allow incorporation of the extracts into a wide variety of personal care products.

"Now, utilizing standard industry practices, we can get the natural chemicals right into products," said Garhofer. "Pavel and his team have found solutions to the roadblocks to getting this product adopted into the cosmetics industry."

Birch trees are a common sight in northern Minnesota and the wood is used for a variety of products — from paper to cabinets — leaving the bark behind. For his start-up this spring, Garhofer will be gathering that bark by the truckload and processing it for the cosmetics and natural supplements industries. The betulin and the bark’s more active derivative, betulinic acid, have long been known to have healthful benefits. Many studies on betulin have shown it to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory benefits. Even more, the preserved body of a 5,000 year old "iceman" in Europe was found with a pouch containing birch fungus, assumed for medicinal purposes. Native Americans have also long used a variety of tree barks for healing treatments.

With the help of NRRI’s ongoing chemistry research and an industry advisory panel, Garhofer believes the foundation is in place to move these natural chemicals to the personal care market. Not only does he have a large inventory of pelletized birch bark and pure betulin powder ready for shipment, he has a ready supply of raw birch bark from sustainably managed and harvested sources.

"The market for this is growing and it’s a long process to build the market," said Garhofer. "We are starting with cosmetics and supplements and as people become familiar with it in their products, they’ll come to expect it. I can’t hire yet, but I anticipate when we are operational, I’ll be able to keep five to six people working."

So far, 20 patents have been issued to the University of Minnesota for the work at NRRI in developing the processes and different uses for the natural chemicals in birch bark and their derivatives, with more on the way.

"We know that birch trees are one of the oldest tree species on earth and that it thrives in some of the harshest of environments," explained Krasutsky. "It has evolved over the millennia to have protective chemicals in its bark that can be very beneficial for people."

There is a lot of potential in birch bark extractives. Some of the possibilities include:

Working with UMD’s School of Medicine, the Hormel Institute and Eli Lilly (through their Open Innovation Drug Discovery), NRRI’s Chemical Extractives Laboratory is screening a library of new chemicals. "This is an exciting opportunity for the University of Minnesota to take part in innovative drug creation to improve health care," said NRRI’s lab director Pavel Krasutsky. "Our efforts are focused on combining the benefits provided by nature with the skills of our experienced chemists for natural, healthy product development."