Seattle Non-Profit PATH Set to Launch “Ultra Rice” to Fight Global Malnutrition

8/13/08Follow @xconomy

Duffy Cox and his dad, James, had a great idea that went nowhere for years. Their quest to develop Vitamin-A fortified rice, which could put a dent in global malnutrition, started in 1985. That’s when the father-and-son inventors at Bellingham, WA-based Bon Dente International, a research and development firm, were asked to give it a shot by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Vitamin A deficiencies are thought to kill 2-3 million children a year in developing countries, so getting it into a staple food like rice is a big deal. For years, though, food scientists considered such rice fortification a big challenge, because Vitamin A has a short shelf-life and is susceptible to heat and humidity common in warehouses of the developing world, Duffy Cox says.

After five years of experiments, and the assistance of a researcher at Iowa State University, they nailed it. Through a process that’s like making pasta—running rice through a type of noodle-making machine—they were able to extend the shelf life of Vitamin A in rice from one week to about six months, and withstand hot and humid storage conditions, Cox says. The patent issued in the mid-1990s, and the family entrepreneurs then traveled to Asia and Latin America, trying to strike deals with local partners and distributors to get it out into the marketplace. They trademarked it Ultra Rice.

Then the whole thing fell flat. It could have been language barriers, cultural barriers, resistance from competitors, all of the above, or something else, Cox says. “We’re not marketers. We like to develop a unique concept and let somebody else take over,” he says.

Cox, whose father has since died, ended up donating the Ultra Rice patent to PATH. The Seattle-based nonprofit, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, specializes in nurturing technologies to reduce health disparities in the developing world. After a couple of false starts of its own, PATH has found partners to help it get Ultra Rice into commercial use by the end of this year, says Dipika Matthias, the project director for PATH. The organization now has a $6 million grant from the Gates Foundation to expand the use of Ultra Rice in its first four markets Brazil, Colombia, China, India. “This is a product now poised for success, on the brink of commercial production,” Matthias says. “We’re going to see an impact from this within five years.”

The technology has evolved a bit at PATH. It now fortifies rice to carry extra iron, to counteract deficiencies that sap the energy and learning capacity of a billion people. Other varieties can make rice with folic acid to prevent birth defects, as well as zinc deficiency, which weakens the immune system of children.

Here’s how it works. A pasta maker in a given country makes some minor equipment modifications … Next Page »

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