Acadiana Business

AgraTech International builds manufacturing facility in Opelousas

by Leslie Turk

Plant will convert seafood shell waste into commercial products for the automotive, defense and medical sectors.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and AgraTech International Inc. Chairman Richard DeMarco announced this week that the company will renovate the former Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink bottling plant in Opelousas into a manufacturing facility that will create 50 direct jobs over a five-year period. The biotech venture, a $10 million capital investment, will convert seafood shell waste into commercial products for the automotive, defense and medical sectors. The direct jobs will pay an average salary of $50,000, plus benefits, and Louisiana Economic Development estimates the project will result in an additional 51 indirect jobs.

Raw shrimp, crawfish and crab shells will be converted into chitosan for products ranging from water-repellant coatings on windshields to enhanced sunscreen lotions, nasal sprays to treat nosebleeds, and dental membranes for implant surgery. In addition to a 37,500-square-foot facility in Opelousas, AgraTech International said it will establish a research partnership with UL Lafayette.

"The new facility will mill shrimp, crawfish and crab shells - waste that previously had to be discarded and added an additional cost to Louisiana's seafood industry," Jindal said in a press release announcing the project. "AgraTech could have invested in other states but chose Louisiana because of our strong business climate, incomparable workforce and our world-class seafood industry. The bottom line is that Agratech's decision to invest here is not only good news for our economy and our workers, but also our seafood industry and for our higher education community."

Based in New Jersey, AgraTech International secured a long-term lease on space at the former drink bottling plant that closed three years ago. The site places the company within close reach of a 100 million-pound annual supply of crustacean waste. AgraTech also will conduct research activity at UL's College of Engineering, where the company will provide instruction and research assistance to students and faculty in exchange for lab space.

"Chitosan production is a totally green endeavor: It is a natural, renewable, nontoxic and nonhazardous, biodegradable product," said DeMarco, who's also president and CEO of AgraTech International. "AgraTech will be the sole domestic commercial supplier of high-quality chitosan. From our Opelousas location, the company intends to remain in the vanguard of chitosan research, developing new chitosan-based products."

In addition to medical applications, AgraTech will manufacture - and license the technology to produce - a chitosan-based, water-repellant coating permanently bonded to glass. Water-barrier applications in the automotive, construction, defense and optics sectors hold significant potential in what the company estimates is a more than $36 billion market. AgraTech and UL are negotiating a research partnership agreement to enhance market applications for the company and research opportunities for the campus.

"The university is always seeking innovative partnerships to enhance the economic diversity and development of the state," UL President Joe Savoie said in the press release. "The scientific work conducted by AgraTech complements research by our faculty. Arrangements such as this are beneficial for business, the university, the region and the state. When companies such as AgraTech have a campus presence, it enhances our ability to engage undergraduates, as well as graduate students, in the types of research that will lead to the creation of more jobs and further economic opportunities."

Acadiana Economic Development and the St. Landry Economic Industrial Development District helped recruit AgraTech International to the Acadiana Region, and the company is expected to utilize Louisiana's R&D Tax Credit, Enterprise Zone and Industrial Tax Exemption incentives.

Renovation and equipping of the facility will begin in early 2013, with commercial operations planned by the end of the second quarter 2013. AgraTech will hire 10 people in its first year and increase its staff to 50 employees within five years.