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Highlights: 525 employees, product present in 99% of infant formulas, $300 million revenue
Life’s DHA and life’s ARA - “We don’t cure cancer. But we’ve impacted probably more people than any biotechnology company ever.” Peter Buzzy, the chief financial officer of Martek Biosciences, makes a bold statement.
Do the data bear him out? They do indeed. Put simply, 99% of infant formulas contain Martek’s patented blends of nutrients and additives, known as life’s DHA and life’s ARA. “We’ve been in 50 million kids,” Buzzy declares. “If you go to any shopping mall in the U.S. and look at a child under the age of five, chances are the molecules we’ve made in our fermentation factories are in the brands” he eats. The same is true for 40% of infants overseas. Martek molecules also make their way into 100 food products you’d see in a grocery store, and the company is developing proteins it hopes to turn into vaccines.
Even more impressive: these feats are the result of serendipity.
The year was 1985. Martin Marietta, a defense and aerospace contractor, had asked a few staffers to explore how algae could benefit long-term space flight. In the course of this project, a realization was born—one of those aha! moments that every now and then gives rise to an entirely new industry. That realization: algae represented a virtually untapped resource that could be screened for a variety of applications to greatly benefit human health. Martek’s official history explains what happened next: “Driven by their passion for their discoveries, these visionary scientists spun off from Martin Marietta, taking with them both their algae and their research. There was still more to discover, more mysteries to unravel.”
Soon, the newly formed Martek corporation hit pay dirt: it identified an algae strain called Crypthecodinium cohnii, a naturally high producer of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a key role in both infant development and adult health. More important, Martek developed a way to extract the DHA from this strain. In turn, this knowledge allowed the company to extract ARA, another fatty acid important to infant health, from the fungus Mortierella alpina. These two innovations led to Martek’s first license agreement, in 1992, for the use of life’sDHA and life’sARA. A year later, after entering into similar agreements with two more infant-formula firms, Martek achieved the holy grail of corporate success: it went public.
Today, the Maryland-based business employs more than 500 people, boasts annual revenue of more than $300 million, and claims a billion dollar market cap. It also has an R&D site in Colorado and manufacturing plants in South Carolina.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the root of all entrepreneurialism: investment. After all, it took Martek 17 years before it made its first dollar. How did the company brave this gauntlet? One word: SBIR, or the Small Business Innovation Research Program. For its first eight years, SBIR awards—almost 40 of them from the DOD, DOE, HHS, USDA, and NSF—were the company’s major source of R&D funds. These contracts “validated our technology,” gave us credibility, and opened doors, recalls Buzzy. No doubt, infants everywhere are drinking to the results.
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