Probiotic business riding high

Last updated 05:00 17/11/2014
Tracey Robinson

Showjumper Georgia Wiltshire is an EquiBrew customer.

Tracey Robinson
BioBrew founder Andre Prassinos, with showjumper Georgia Wiltshire.

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Although BioBrew founder Andre Prassinos targeted the dairy sector when he launched his fresh animal probiotic, it's the equine market that is now proving to be the company's cash cow. 

The Rotorua-based company's success is a tale of two markets. Since setting up in 2009 BioBrew has slowly grown its dairy customer base. It began with Prassinos selling the brown-coloured concoction of living microbes direct to dairy farmers from his car boot, and it has blossomed into a profitable business which was named a finalist in this year's Sustainable 60 Awards. 

But in the past three months the firm has giddied-up in an unexpected direction, with the launch of its horse probiotic, EquiBrew.

"Horsey people like to talk," Prassinos says. Based on word-of-mouth feedback alone 30 retailers have approached the American-born entrepreneur directly to stock EquiBrew. The company can barely keep up with demand for the potion that promotes animal digestive wellness, and Prassinos now believes it has global potential.

"We've succeeded with our products in the dairy industry, but we have not had that exponential product launch that every entrepreneur hopes for. But that is happening with EquiBrew. We have hit a sweet spot," Prassinos says.

"Horsey people are very well-networked. Riders socialise with each other in organised competitions which they have to drive long distances to get to and when they are there, they talk. There's a big market for this."

Lincoln University animal probiotics expert Dr Craig Bunt says studies suggest that establishing a population of "good" microbes in an animal at a young age will make it less vulnerable to sickness.

"In some research on chickens it was observed in that chicks raised in clean environments were more susceptible to salmonella. [Transplanting] the gut content of an animal that has learned how to deal with [salmonella] can help the chick," he says.

However the effectiveness of probiotics varies from animal to animal, Bunt says.

"It's the sort of thing that will make no difference if the animal is well. It's like in a human, if you take an aspirin you are not going to notice any effect if you are healthy. But there's an argument for dosing a population with probiotics as a blanket cover."

Research also suggests that fresh microbial products such as BioBrew are more effective than freeze dried varieties, he adds.

"A few years ago we tested some freeze dried probiotics off the shelf to see how many live microbes there were. Tap water has more live microbes than some of the products."

BioBrew has a devoted base of dairy customers and has seen double-digit revenue growth in the past year in the sector. But there are reasons why EquiBrew has been faster out of the gates, Prassinos says.

"Some of the effects of probiotics that aren't important to a dairy farmer are extremely important to a horse owner - things like mood and behaviour.

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"A horse with an upset tummy is not as easy to ride. I have yet to see a dairy farmer sitting on the back of a cow," he laughs.

"With a horse you are doing an individual rather than a population. Horse owners have an emotional attachment to their animal, and they are deeply involved." 

Sandy Rawlings of Whatawhata horse supply store EquiGear began ordering EquiBrew after customers asked her to stock it. Although she was nervous about selling something with a shelf life of only two months, she is now making small orders regularly. Her customers have seen improvements in their horses' coat condition, weight, feed reduction, and reduced need to worm, she says.

"It seems to improve a lot of behaviour [problems]. I have had customers come in and say, 'it's like a completely different horse', after using it. I think it balances them out.

"Within the horsey world, the word of mouth on good products is like lightning because people spend a lot of money on their horses… If you can afford horses, you have some element of spare income," Rawlings says.

Prassinos, who owned a real estate management business in the US, came up with the idea for BioBrew as he pulled veggies in a market garden while his wife studied at Lincoln University. He began chatting to Don Pearson, a horticulture lecturer who had worked in the microbiotic industry. Pearson was disillusioned with the effectiveness of probiotics which were freeze-dried for the sake of longer shelf life. 

Over two years, the pair began formulating a fresh probiotic product and bootstrapped the operation.

BioBrew has received assistance from Lincoln University and Callaghan Innovation to develop a quality assurance testing programme. Callaghan also funded a Post Doctorate Fellow from Lincoln to help the company 'bio-prospect', whereby samples of certain microbes are collected from animals to create a unique probiotic offering.

BioBrew has two production facilities in the North and South Island. It delivers the dairy product to farms in refillable containers, "a bit like the milkman," while EquiBrew is sold directly to retailers. The refill model has enabled BioBrew to save money on bottling, and create an environmentally friendly brand – it was a finalist in this year's Sustainable 60 Awards in the environment and small business categories.

While there are only 80,000 horses in New Zealand, compared with 6.6 million dairy cows, the niche equine product has export potential, he believes. There are 900,000 horses in Australia and BioBrew aims to set up a manufacturing facility there next year. A move to the US, where there are 9.5 million horses, is also in its sights.

The product was designed with export regulatory frameworks in mind, he says. "Our production methods are elegant and can be done anywhere, and it's not especially capital intensive because the microbes do a lot of the work."

BioBrew is also developing a human probiotic at the Food Innovation Network's FoodBowl facility in Auckland, and is researching the pet probiotic market. If it goes further with these products the company will require capital for a bottling facility, Prassinos says.

While the dairy sector has been slow to take off, he's confident that interest will grow as European demand for farming traceability and sustainable practices filters down.

"Fonterra's commodity focus has certain vulnerabilities… Anonymous milk powder does not have accountability all the way to the source.

"BioBrew hope we can contribute to best practice that protects farmers from that vulnerability," Prassinos says.  

- Stuff

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