In 20 years, people may be calling Spokane researcher Joanna Ellington the Marie Curie of the bull-semen industry.
Like the famous scientist who discovered gamma rays, Ellington stumbled onto a discovery that might make her rich, possibly even famous.
Ellington, with her partners in a Spokane biotechnology firm, are poised to take the $500-million-per-year U.S. bull-semen market by the horns.
A veterinarian and fertility scientist, Ellington was studying animal sperm activity in test tubes a few years ago.
Her WSU Spokane colleague, Sylvia Oliver, suggested trying out a chemical with interesting qualities.
The chemical, a polysaccharide or complex sugar, made no difference in the project she was working on at the time.
“But I noticed that it seemed to make unfrozen sperm swim faster and longer,” Ellington said.
That discovery led to Advanced Reproduction Technologies, a start-up firm with Ellington and Oliver as the original partners.
The company’s goal is to create a chemical additive that would give cattle breeders a major advantage - frozen bull sperm that can last longer and deliver more oomph per cubic centimeter.
In a business where small amounts of bull semen are treated like precious metal, the new product might help generate big money for their company - and dozens of new jobs for the area.
Called Fertile Freeze, the new additive is expected to be ready next year.
Between now and then, Ellington and her colleagues are concluding lab tests and preparing their marketing plans.
For 50 years, ranchers have used frozen bull semen to impregnate cows, mostly for prized physical traits like high milk production or easy calving.
The key dealers in that industry are several nationwide companies that keep track of the most prized bulls, collect the specimens and then sell them to buyers.
Each specimen is sold - in frozen form - inside a thin, 4-inch container or “straw.” Each straw holds about 10 million sperm cells.
And each straw costs from $20 to $200, depending on the sire.
The chances of successful impregnation are only 50-50. One reason is the short life span of unfrozen sperm.
“You have about five minutes or so to do the implantation,” said Raymond Wright, a WSU Animal Sciences Professor.
Fertile Freeze, because of its chemical additives, gives the breeder a better batting average, said Wright, who’s served as a consultant for Advanced Reproductive Technologies.
Its value, he added, seems due to the antioxidizing quality of the additives. They keep the cell walls from breaking down longer than if the chemicals weren’t there, he said.
“Our company slogan, we joke around here, is ‘the need for speed,”’ said Tom Siegel, who became ART’s financial officer in December.
The company has moved into the basement of the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute to develop its first batch of Fertile Freeze.
SIRTI recently approved a $95,000 grant so that the company can conclude its work and get Fertile Freeze into production.
The product should soon receive its U.S. patent. An international patent is also planned, since global sales of frozen sperm approach $2 billion a year, said Ellington.
Even without foreign trade, Fertile Freeze could generate sales of $1 million to $2 million annually, Siegel said.
If Fertile Freeze is a success, the company plans to expand its product line to other animal species, Ellington said.