21-employee Le Center ag-tech delivering paradigm-shifting technology on the verge of redefining an industry.
Photo by Jeff Silker
Listening to CEO Brad Mitteness explain what Le Center-based Camas Inc. produces can be a little like reading the mathematical equations underpinning Einstein’s theory of relativity. Tired eyes gloss over as with shellac; confused, the mind shifts from neutral to park.
The company also mirrors Einstein’s theory of relativity in a more energizing, robust fashion: the possibilities seem almost endless.
This 21-employee business, with corporate offices and laboratory fronting Highway 99 in Le Center and a 45,000 sq. ft. facility five miles away with 32,000 live chickens, produces patented chicken egg-derived antibodies that are able to effectively control targeted microorganisms, such as salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7, in feedlot hogs and cattle—without the often unwanted bi-product of having to constantly marinate the animals in antibiotics.
The technology could be described as revolutionary.
“Camas started in the mid-’80s as the vision of Dr. John Rosevear, who had worked at Mayo Clinic,” said 47-year-old Mitteness from his Le Center corporate offices. “He had an M.D. and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and specialized in Laboratory Medicine. His initial idea was that he could take antibodies and use them to make diagnostic kits. There was an unmet need for quick tests that could be done in the field for detecting listeria in food processing lines, for example.”
Dr. Rosevear was able to capture pathogens (disease-producing agents) with these sticky antibodies—and do it not unlike the way Scotch tape would in lifting lint off a pair of pants. With Rosevear’s test, if particular bacteria were present then a color change would occur, similar to a pregnancy test. The company produced anthrax diagnostic tests for the U.S. Marine Corps, for one, and tests for listeria, E. coli, and fungal toxins. The Marine Corps required that the antibodies had to withstand temperatures of 70C for seven days, and work in low Ph and high-salt concentration situations.
While searching for sources of antibodies (natural pathogen disablers) that could meet Marine Corps specifications, Rosevear and his associates discovered that antibodies derived from chicken eggs worked best. Mammalian antibodies weren’t shelf stable under these specific conditions. The egg-derived antibodies held up extremely well under high temperature and low Ph conditions. They could be derived through hyper-immunizing a hen several times and patiently waiting for her to lay her egg, which occurred about once every twenty-eight hours. The special egg contained massive amounts of the antibody.
Said Mitteness, “Doing it this way gives us all kinds of advantages. It’s efficient and it’s low cost. The other way to do it would be to hyper-immunize a rabbit or goat and draw blood from the animal. But that would be very invasive and would not result in antibodies with the same level of stability.”
Mitteness was born and raised in west-central Minnesota, in Benson, on a sugar beet, registered cattle, turkey, corn, and soybean farm. It was a great atmosphere in which to grow up and develop a work ethic, he said, and he was heavily involved showing cattle in 4H and in FFA before going off to pursue his dreams at the University of Minnesota. His siblings and parents were all high-achievers: his oldest sister became a medical anthropologist and Department Chair at the University of California-San Francisco; his other sister, the executive editor of American Family Physician magazine; and his brother resides on the family farm near Benson.
“And my father was an extremely hardworking guy, always involved in organizations, and was on the original board of directors of the Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperative,” he said. “My mother is a super-bright lady. She has always kept the wheels on and everybody going in the right direction. She gets a lot of the credit for what we have accomplished.”
At the University of Minnesota, Mitteness majored in agricultural and applied economics, and specifically, he zeroed in on animal science and technology. As for his nature, he was intensely curious, always focused on how and why things worked, and figuring out ways to solve problems.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a farmer,” he said. “So I went home after graduation in 1983 and started farming. That was a tough time to be starting out in agriculture. My brother and I eventually worked up to 1,800 acres, and raised sugar beets, cattle, corn and soybeans. We didn’t do turkeys, unlike my parents. I farmed full-time for seven years and enjoyed about every minute of it.”
In 1990, Mitteness leased out his farm and began graduate work in economics at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, he landed his dream job as general manager at the Agriculture Utilization Research Institute (AURI) in Marshall, Minnesota. The Institute’s mission, Mitteness said, was to help people commercialize value-added agricultural technologies. While in that position, he ran across many ag-tech start-ups, including Camas, and worked with dozens of companies manufacturing all kinds of product, from high-tech applications like biodegradable packing material and plastics made from wheat starch, jams and jellies from wild berries. He also became deeply involved in food safety issues, and learned about meat processing.
At AURI only eighteen months, he left. “I had challenges working for a state agency and the limitations it imposed,” he said. “They wanted us to account for our time every thirty minutes. It was very much a bureaucracy. I was dealing with a state bureaucracy on one hand, and dealing with very aggressive, fast-moving entrepreneurs. I was out making things happen with entrepreneurs and I just loved it. Every day I was working with people doing new things, trying new things. I was out there with people working on the cutting edge of technology.”
Obviously, he had caught the entrepreneurial bug. After leaving, and starting up his own ag-tech consulting business, he began working with select clients.
By 1992, Camas really needed to refocus. The company had been selling diagnostic kits, but that industry was changing rapidly. On the other hand, its patented technology concerning derived antibodies had a number of potential applications, including adding the antibodies to livestock feed in order to bind targeted microorganisms to block colonization—in essence, doing what antibiotics did, but in a natural way.
After coming on board in 1995 as a consultant, Mitteness met at company headquarters near the University of Minnesota with Dr. Rosevear, CFO Don Robinson, and a major investor. “And I’ll never forget sitting with John, Don, and Scott in their little laboratory in Minneapolis. They walked me through what they could do with these antibodies. It was incredible that they could selectively bind salmonella, for instance—and they had several patents and patents pending. I became tremendously excited with the concept. I didn’t know that eggs had the antibodies. They told me how cheaply this could be produced. I had grown up in the turkey business, and had breeder hens. I knew how efficiently you could produce eggs.”
Mitteness helped board members understand other applications for their patents, including using the antibodies in animal feeds as direct interventions. Mitteness’ food safety background helped in a bit of the explaining, as did his experience in working with meat processors in implementing comprehensive food safety programs. “I knew the tremendous need to address salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, listeria and other organisms, for instance,” said Mitteness. “And after that meeting, I had a lot of nights where I couldn’t sleep because of the excitement, just thinking about the company’s potential.”
After successful trials, and proving they could reduce the numbers of certain microorganisms to undetectable levels, Mitteness and the company board thought they had a slam-dunk selling the product in to meat packers. On presentation, the meat packers all liked it, but said that Camas first needed to sell the product in to their suppliers, major feedlots. The major feedlots liked it, but said Camas had to sell the product first to the meat packers. It was extremely frustrating. “Here we had proved to ourselves, and to the world, that these very small applications of potent, functional antibodies could really change things. We were feeding just a few grams a day to a 1,200 pound steer and with it had been able to alter the micro-flora of the animal’s digestive tract.”
In time, the company’s products—and revolutionary concept—did begin catching on with feedlots. So in 2001, the board felt a pressing need to expand. They wanted to be relatively close to Minneapolis where top management lived, and in a rural area, where they could have complete quality control by being able to inject and process the eggs of their own hens. Le Center business leaders approached Camas, and several became investors. The company built a 45,000 sq. ft. facility south of town, which included a Class-1000 clean room. Camas also established its headquarters and research functions on Highway 99 in LeCenter.
Pigs raised in modern production systems can be bombarded with a number of physiological stresses. It’s not unusual for pork producers to lose 15-20 percent of pigs born alive. In a perfect world, a pig’s natural antibodies would mount an effective immune response to a pathogen in the sticky mucosa—in the lining of the gut. The antibody would bind to the pathogen and quickly eliminate it from the body before a disease state could set in. In short, Camas’ product could be described as a natural protein that specifically binds to targeted microorganisms in the mucosal lining of the gut or respiratory tract.
The bottom line for pork producers: one of Camas’ products can lead to a dramatic reduction in scours (diarrhea), the No. 1 enemy and killer of baby pigs. For each day in the nursery with diarrhea, the pig has to stay at least three extra days gaining weight in a finishing operation eating corn at $5 per bushel. A pig can have diarrhea for four or five days. Use of Camas’ products can pad a producer’s bottom line significantly. Camas is absolutely committed to engineering and marketing products that provide very significant returns on investment to producers.
Even beyond the bottom line, feedlots using Camas products are able to reduce their use of human-manufactured antibiotics in animal feed, a hot issue. “But we don’t get into that argument over whether using antibiotics is bad or good,” said Mitteness. “We support the truly ethical use of antibiotics. However, many producers are in situations where their disease threat is so bad all the time that there are always sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in the feed. There are situations that are so out of control and it’s hard to stop the diarrhea. As for us, on a moderately challenged farm, we can cut diarrhea significantly. Our aim is to make these natural avian antibodies the front line defense for producers while reserving the use of antibiotics for acute situations.”
Currently, the company manufactures products delivered through feed, through the water system, and also through an animal’s nose—a spray, the trademarked NPCoat. The latter, at present, seems to offer the most promise. In early summer 2008, Camas will be close to finishing a long process of hopefully having NPCoat licensed as a veterinary biologic with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. In research trials, the product has led to up to 60 percent reductions in bovine respiratory disease in feedlot cattle. Bovine respiratory disease costs the beef industry a billion dollars a year in morbidity and mortality and reduced animal performance It doesn’t take much NPCoat to make a huge difference: the recommended application is only 1.5 ccs per nostril.
“When we launched NPCoat, I spoke to a group of veterinarians in Nebraska at a 5:00 a.m. breakfast meeting,” said Mitteness. “They wanted to hear the Camas story. I told them about spraying egg antibodies into the noses of feedlot cattle. They were very skeptical at first, to say the least, and irritated they had taken time off to hear me speak. But those five guys all got product from me. Within two weeks all five became customers, and they are customers to this day.”
While the company does have one 150,000-head feedlot as a customer, most customers are in the 1,000-20,000 head range across Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and the Southeast.
Camas also markets a product called Calf Helper that is added to milk replacer for baby calves—again, almost 10 percent of dairy animals born don’t make it through weaning due to various diseases. Said Mitteness, “Our product can lead to a significant reduction in morbidity and mortality there, too.”
The almost endless growth potential? The United States alone has about nine million dairy cows in production and annually slaughters 35 million beef cattle and almost a hundred million hogs. As for Camas, the company currently ships product to about 30 states, and has been doing extensive research with the Brazilian beef industry and in Spain. Through its technology and products—researched in Le Center in part using a bio-secure facility and a tissue culture laboratory—Camas has separate products that can target each of dozens of microorganisms affecting farm animals.
The company owns patents and has several patents pending for methods of producing antibodies, injecting chickens, and patents on the products themselves. Although there are competitors, said Mitteness, “There isn’t anyone out there doing things exactly the way we do.”
Brad Mitteness joined Camas Inc. full-time in 1998 as its marketing director, not long after John Rosevear passed away, and became CEO only last October, replacing Dr. Peter Nash. Mitteness still lives near Marshall, where he used to work as general manager of an Agriculture Utilization Research Institute branch.
He said, “I fell in love with a local girl there. I married late in life, only five years ago. Teresa’s family and parents are in Marshall, and I promised that we would stay put there. My work requires me to travel constantly anyway. For instance, I just returned from a veterinarian conference in San Diego last night. I spend a lot of time away from home, but we’re making it work. Through my marriage, I now have stepchildren, and six absolutely adorable grandchildren. I have to give all the credit in the world to Teresa for putting up with all my travel and the weekends when I talk to her constantly about really arcane pieces of technology we are working on at Camas. I couldn’t do what I do without her love and support.”
Price is Right
In order to successfully compete against the huge antibiotic industry, Camas’ product needs to, in the least, do its work comparably and be priced competitively. “If we get too expensive, there is sticker shock,” said Mitteness. “We aren’t cheaper on a per-animal basis. Our efficacy gives us a cost advantage.”
Mitteness said that disease pressure in feedlots increases every year. One virus alone, circovirus, devastated the swine industry over the last two years, and salmonella always remains a problem.
“However, it’s a fact that these organisms can develop an antibiotic resistance,” he said. “It’s happening, and people try denying it. Our aim at Camas is to give producers a viable alternative to the way they have operated in the past. The antibiotic companies—I don’t bash them. They provide great and necessary products. However, economic pressure has caused some producers to probably rely too much on antibiotics.” In addition, an antibody, unlike an antibiotic, can be effective against a virus, and there are no effective antiviral products for animal agriculture except traditional vaccines.
The animal antibiotic industry has a number of legs up on Camas. They have marketplace clout, friendly distributors, large research staffs, and massive warehouses—economics of scale. All that, and yet Camas must be onto something special because the company has been approached by potential buyers. As for now, Mitteness and his board see a lot more upside potential, and greater growth possibilities, and they want to take the company several steps further before entertaining any thoughts of selling.
What keeps Mitteness upbeat about the company’s future is NPCoat, an antibody nasal spray able to reduce the incidence of bovine respiratory disease, i.e., shipping fever, in beef cattle. The company has applied to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to have NPCoat designated as a regulated veterinary biologic, similar to a vaccine, which would mean the product could carve out a unique market niche. Camas has several competitors selling somewhat similar egg products as feed ingredients, but not one competitor has a USDA-approved veterinary biologic based on egg antibodies.
“We would prefer that NPCoat be designated as a veterinary biologic,” said Mitteness. “The code of federal regulations says an antibody is a veterinary biologic. In order to make specific label claims, such as saying our product is for the prevention of bovine respiratory disease, for example, we have to be regulated and have a license. That’s a good system and extremely rigorous. It makes sure that manufacturers prove their potency, and they do their efficacy and safety studies, something Camas has always done anyway.”
Camas should know more by mid-summer of the USDA’s verdict toward NPCoat. Such a designation, along with the company’s patents, will significantly increase the barrier of entry for any competing product, and make the company far more valuable to investors.
On The Cusp
CEO Mitteness stressed the company wouldn’t be anywhere without its talented workforce of 21 employees, such as Connie Phillips, an experienced virologist from Iowa with 35 years in the vaccine development business in USDA-regulated environments.
He said, “A lot of our people live in the Mankato area, and we’ve had really good luck with Minnesota State graduates. Of our 21 employees, five are research scientists, and we are planning on adding several more positions with research and product development responsibilities. The key to making all this happen is to have the right people. We have a great staff, and we have had a lot of people really believe in us over the years. Now we are right on the cusp of accomplishing something special.”
He added, “What makes our company different from others attempting to do the same thing: first, we’re committed to going down the path of licensed biologics. Second, we do extremely rigorous quality control work and we do the research in-house to constantly produce new products and technologies that make a real difference to our customers. We think our future is extremely bright. We have our current technologies, and we also have some incredibly exciting technical developments in process and subject to several patents pending.”