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Fibers from the sea

Company manufactures food supplements with raw material extracted from crustaceans

MIGUEL BOYAYANShrimp head, lobster shell, and crab carapaces, abundant and rejected by the fishing industry of Ceará, no longer have the garbage dump as their final destiny. They are being transformed into food supplements, in the form of capsules and pills, which function as assistants in the reduction of cholesterol, in weight reduction and in the control of diseases such as arthrosis.

The beneficial substances present in the crustacean leftovers are chitin and chitosan, two biopolymers that have important chemical and biological properties. According to studies carried out in the United States and Japan, chitosan captures and eliminates fats by a mechanism of excretion of biliary acids. Besides the health industry, chitosan is used in processes for the purification and treatment of water, in the manufacture of contact lenses and in the cosmetics industry as an ingredient in the manufacture of shampoos, lotions and protection creams.

The biopolymers extracted from the crustaceans are the reason for the success of the company from the state of Ceará named Polymar. It already owns eleven patents for products and processes that involve chitin and chitosan. Among them is a technique developed in the company for obtaining these substances, the food itself with its formulation and process methodology and a membrane for use in the regeneration of tissue and in scar healing. One of the innovations, also patented, developed by Polymar, is in the reuse of one of the reagents used for the extraction of chitosan, namely sodium hydroxide.

“The reuse of this chemical substance is perfect from the environmental and economic points of view because, as well as eliminating the residues, the final cost of production is reduced by 60%”, says the chemist Alexandre Cabral Craveiro, the company’s vice-president. For this development Polymar received during 1999 the national award from the Euvaldo Lodi Institute (IEL), of the Brazilian Support Service to Micro and Small Businesses (Sebrae) and of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

For the results obtained over the last six years, the company received two awards of weight in the technological innovation area during 2003: one as a small company from the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) and another as a graduating company from the National Association of Promoting Entities of Enterprises in Advanced Technologies (Anprotec), which brings together the incubators and technology parks within the country.

Increased production
Founded in 1997 by Craveiro and Danilo Queiroz, at that time two students researching for their doctorate degrees in organic chemistry at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), Polymar was originally housed in a large warehouse of 80 m2 in the Technology Development Park (Padetec), on the university campus. It was there that they began their research into the biopolymers that involved the immobilization of cells and enzymes, the separation of substances and the production of fibers of chitin and chitosan. In April of 2000, the company left the incubator and moved to the outskirts of Fortaleza, in an industrial plant with more than 1,600 meters of constructed area and with the capacity of processing 800 tons per year of naturally occurring carapaces.

“In the beginning, we took a large jump forward by providing chitosan to competitors”, explains Craveiro. As there was an interest on the part of Polymar to sign up as a producer of raw material in the country, the company began to provide supply to other companies, “which for some appeared incoherent from the market point of view”, he adds. Some two years ago, the company began to manufacture products with a specific brand name for its competitors and the market expanded within the country. This evolution, nonetheless, was not easy.

“Everything that is innovative pays a high price, from the confidence in the product to the process of approval of its use”, Craveiro evaluates. At the start, the company did not manage to obtain the necessary registration for the commercialization of its products in the country. During this impasse, Polymar decided to set up a branch in Miami a quick and easy process, according to the vice-president and went on to export the raw material to Miami, then importing the finished product, duly registered. This fact ended up working as further pressure for regulating the products in Brazil.

The commercialization of the products in retail began to be authorized through directives based on protocols obtained from the National Agency for Sanitary Vigilance (Anvisa), by presenting clinical studies on the efficiency and safety of chitin and chitosan carried out in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Although underlining that Anvisa’s precautions are entirely justified “because products for human consumption need to be rigorously tested”, Craveiro defends the implantation of a differentiated treatment for technology based companies and complains about the need for more agility from public organs in the recognition of products originating principally from companies linked to universities and technology parks. “Very often innovative projects developed by competent researchers and which could bring potential benefits to the population, are hurt due to delays in their approval.”

In the United States this approval is much quicker due to a law passed in 1994 (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act Dshea) which established a new category of products, given the name of diet supplements, out with the sphere of the direct action of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American government agency responsible for the green light for new industrialized Food and medicines. This measure allowed the manufacturers to promote the working properties of their products, assuming that they were based on scientific evidence. In the opinion of vice-president Craveiro, various research groups at universities and international research centers are bottlenecked in the study of the actions and properties of this food.

Besides the problems of registration, Polymar faced other hurdles, such as the lack of lines of financial support for small sized companies. In order to get around these difficulties, it was necessary to create and improvise, as occurred in the projection and development of equipment for the manufacture of products. Thus, glass fiber tanks were adapted for the initial stages of production, reactors were built as well as an industrial grinder in partnership with a mechanical engineering company and drying ovens were projected that made use of solar and wind energy, abundant in Ceará.

Polymar’s current outlook is to develop products in partnership with other companies. This is the case with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), with which two lines of research have been established: the first being a study on the use of chitosan (that also possesses bacteriological and fungicidal properties) in the protection of fruit seeds against invading fungi and a second in the development of a protective skin that increases the useful lives of fruit and vegetables on shop shelves.

In a partnership with Petrobras, the proposal is to use chitosan in combating sea pollution caused by oil spills. When applied over the mass of oil, this substance forms an aggregate that makes its removal easier. The initial tests were carried out by Petrobras in 2003, and others, on a larger scale, are forecast for this year. Last year Polymar grossed R$ 5.4 million, as against R$ 2.55 million for 2002, of which close to 12% were applied in research and development. The portion of this sum coming from exports is as yet small and is concentrated within the Mercosul countries, but it should expand, according to Craveiro, who highlights promising negotiations with France and Portugal.