Seattle Non-Profit PATH Set to Launch “Ultra Rice” to Fight Global Malnutrition
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 to run the vitamin fortification process. It makes highly concentrated rice with one or more of the vitamins, which are shipped to a rice miller, and mixed in at a ratio of about 1 fortified rice grain for every 100 regular rice grains. That’s enough concentration to get the essential nutrients into the diet, without significantly changing the texture or appearance of a bowl of rice. (Grains with added iron can get discolored, but PATH has found people don’t mind eating them as long as the rest of the bowl contains white rice.)
The extra cost to produce the Ultra Rice is minimal, PATH’s Matthias says. At least one rice miller has shown interest in marketing it at the same price as regular rice, partly because they think they can mix in cheaper broken grains that otherwise might go to waste.
PATH considers the technique one of the most practical for fighting global malnutrition, Matthias says. Supplements are more costly, and people forget to take them, or don’t want to. Genetic modification of foods is another option, although that has stirred controversy overseas. “This way, kids get it at school. There are no compliance issues. We get better results,” Matthias says.
PATH has had some difficulties getting Ultra Rice to the masses, however. It struck a distribution deal in Brazil with a rice miller, through a contract that gave the miller control over the relationship with the pasta manufacturer. When the pasta manufacturer went bankrupt, the project stalled. A similar scenario happened in Colombia, Matthias says.
To prevent that from happening again, PATH tried a different strategy in China, licensing the Ultra Rice technology directly to a pasta-making company there that is part state-owned. In India, it also has deals directly with two pasta makers, Matthias says.
The project got a big boost earlier this year when a study by the Instituto de Salud Publica and PATH showed that the fortified rice isn’t just an intriguing idea, it can actually improve public health. The study found that women from six factories in the Mexican state of Morales had an 80 percent lower prevalence of anemia, and a 29 percent lower prevalence of iron deficiency if they ate iron-fortified rice, compared with those who ate the regular stuff.
Cox, for his part, says he’s happy with what PATH has done with the technology. His company donated the Vitamin-A fortification and micronutrient patent outright, and doesn’t stand to receive any royalties on product sales. He did retain the Ultra Rice trademark in case commercial uses emerge in the Western world, he said. The company is doing fine anyway, thanks to licenses it has sold for a bunch of inventions, including naturally pasteurized eggs, low-cholesterol eggs, and pollution control technology it licensed to Monsanto, Cox says.
“We’d like to get the vitamins to the kids who need them most. After we came up with the technology, it’s just not been as easy as we hoped to implement,” Cox says. “I think PATH is committed. As I get more experienced in business, I can see it takes human resources, capital resources, and technical resources aligned to accomplish a task of this magnitude. You need all of the pieces in place.”