Under the new name, the business, which is rooted in aquaculture, is appealing to several markets
March 13, 2023
This paid piece is sponsored by South Dakota Biotech.
South Dakota state soil became the basis for a name that would carry one of its most successful agricultural startups into the future.
It’s called Houdek – both the state soil and the company that’s really building its business from the ground up.
“We wanted to establish a brand that was connected to our vision of better botanicals for better lives,” said co-founder and CEO Mark Luecke. “What better way to honor the South Dakota farmers who grow the plants we use to make these groundbreaking ingredients?”
Houdek encompasses the growing businesses of the company that began as Prairie AquaTech. That name still lives on in his aquaculture operation, which has gained international recognition for its use of fermented vegetable protein to make a positive impact on the global aquaculture industry.
“Even though it’s no longer a startup company, it’s fair to say that Houdek is just getting started,” said Joni Ekstrum, executive director of South Dakota Biotech. “We’ve been proud to support this company from the beginning, and I think as South Dakota begins to understand the incredible potential here, it will become clear why Houdek is so positioned to do such great things.”
Founded in 2012 out of research at SDSU, Prairie AquaTech uses a natural, organic process to convert plant-based materials such as soybean meal and dried still grains into high-quality ingredients that are fed to fish and shrimp. Aquaculture producers find that the ingredients in ME-PRO are so digestible that fish and shrimp do not contaminate the water after consumption.
“That’s a value proposition around the world, whether it’s in the fjords of Norway or the estuaries of Ecuador — everyone everywhere is focused on the quality of our water,” said Luecke.
Houdek’s manufacturing site on the Volga River and its research and development operations in Brookings are home to most of the nearly 75-strong team. However, other employees of the company live in Sioux Falls and around the country.
“We have team members in St. Louis, Houston, Washington, DC and other locations, validating that our vision and execution has attracted talent from across the industry and we are able to attract the right talent, wherever they are.” are found,” said Lücke.
Prairie AquaTech has launched a broad marketing campaign highlighting the animal health benefits of fermented vegetable protein and the resulting profitability for producers.
“We can bring in more money for the aquaculture producers,” said Luecke. “Clean water is better for the environment and for the fish or shrimp farm. Growers have better animal health and survivability, which increases farm profitability. We are currently selling to world class aquaculture feed producers around the world and this remains our core business.”
But other market segments are also gaining traction for Houdek.
The benefits achieved with Houdek in fish and shrimp feeds translate to dogs and cats, opening up great opportunities for large pet food manufacturers.
“After the pandemic, a lot of people adopted companion animals, and they’re treating them like family more than ever before, so they’re really focusing on the companions’ diet,” Luecke said. “And there is a big trend to increase herbal ingredients in these diets. But one problem is that herbal ingredients have anti-nutritional factors; Fermentation eliminates these factors.”
The resulting pet food ingredient, called Protéger, will be tested by the world’s largest pet food manufacturers, Luecke said. “The name Protéger is French for ‘protect’ so we see the ingredient as a way to protect your pets and we see a keen interest in the sustainability of our product.”
Tests are carried out to show that it is non-allergenic. The effort resulted in Houdek becoming the first company in the state to be certified as a Safe Quality Food Site, or SQF, an industry designation that allows it to enter the growing pet food market.
At the same time, Houdek begins to exploit his fermentation science for use in human nutrition.
“It was part of our vision because the world needs more protein and you want to get protein to people as efficiently as possible,” said Luecke.
Again, Houdek’s fermented vegetable protein can be used in plant-based foods with a number of potential applications.
“Muesli, bars, snacks – biscuits, chips,” said Luecke. “One thing food manufacturers want to claim is that a food is a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ source of protein. And we hope to encourage them to use our product to back up that claim.”
Houdek is testing its product in partnership with a Minneapolis firm founded by former food company executives with expectations of reaching out to food manufacturers later this year.
“The tests went exceptionally well,” said Luecke. “We’ve replaced ingredients from egg protein to milk protein to wheat flour, all types of ingredients typically used in food products.”
Finally, Houdek is also finding growing momentum with his precision fermentation skills. As US manufacturers have used government subsidies to increase biodiesel production that uses soybean oil as a feedstock, there is a more plentiful supply of soybean meal as a by-product.
“That’s what we’re currently buying to make our ingredients,” Luecke said. “Soybean meal is expected to increase tremendously, and it has to go somewhere. We are the only patented technology available to recycle this by-product, so we anticipate increasing production both inside and outside of South Dakota.”
This leads to new market opportunities. Once Houdek has fermented the needed protein from soybean meal, a stream of sugar is left behind. Because of the proprietary fermentation process, “we are left with a very unique media source that manufacturers of non-animal food products require for what is known as precision fermentation,” said Luecke. “That’s why we’ve welcomed companies from around the world to South Dakota to visit our facility and test our media source, using their proprietary microorganisms to create their cell-based food products.”
The full use of soybean meal “is groundbreaking,” he added. “We leave nothing behind and that is so crucial in terms of sustainability. We have a very low carbon and water footprint and we are very proud of that.”
Connect with biotechnology
Interested in further networking with the state’s biotech industry? Check out a free networking event this week.
The mixer will be held at McGough Construction, 114 S. Main Ave., Suite 100 on Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.