Bio Soil labs find home

The deadly EF-3 tornado that ripped through the Pine Belt on Jan. 21 has forced one Hattiesburg business to shift its focus to relocating.

Bio Soil Enhancers Inc., which is located at 1161 James St., is an agricultural biology company that produces SumaGrow, a fertilizer alternative that yields high-quality crops with less irrigation and less input. The product is developed in laboratories and the company’s labs were most affected by the tornado.

However, not all of the business’s laboratories – which suffered most of the water damage to the facility – will be moving. The company’s research and development of microbial consortiums in products containing SumaGrow are going to The Accelerator, a technology-driven business incubator founded by the University of Southern Mississippi.

The Accelerator, boasting 60,000 square feet including 10 state-of-the-art laboratories, was developed by the university to advance private-sector innovation from concept to commercialization.

Sean McKeehan, Bio Soil’s general manager, said production had to ramp up to meet sales.

“We are currently experiencing a 220 percent increase in sales from this time last year,” he said. “We lost the ceilings on three of our labs. We had to make the decision on microbial cultures that were growing. We had the choice of saving our mother stock that was already done or the ones that were still under way. So we chose to protect the mother stock, our finished product, and everything that was in production in shakers and flasks was a total loss. Then we lost the capability to grow for about a week or a week and a half.”

Aimee Murry, Bio Soil’s public relation and marketing communications manager, said BSEI will be leasing one or two laboratories at The Accelerator for research and development.

“It is so impressive,” she said about The Accelerator. “We will be moving the research and development there with a scientist, while we will still be handling most of the production out here at the original buildings.”

Murry said the timing of the disaster affected the company.

“This traditionally is when we would be ramping up to our busy season,” she said. “It is certainly the peak season nationally and we have been fortunate enough to engage some different contracts internationally. We really need to really scale up our production so that we can meet those obligations. It’s certainly a nice challenge to have, but that challenge on top of rebuilding some of what was lost can be a bit overwhelming. We are very confident in our staff and our ability to meet all of these obligations.”

The BSEI building is strong, but the ceilings were not, McKeehan said.

“We took significant water damage to our labs and we had to replace the ceilings in all three of them,” he said. “In all three of our production labs and our storage facility, we lost ceiling tiles and had water damage. When all was said and done, I would say we lost two weeks of worth of culture growth and then we shut down for a week to a week and a half to get new ceilings in.”

BSEI had been considering leasing with The Accelerator to assist in scaling up operations later in the year, but the tornado accelerated the timeline. The demand for SumaGrow products increases dramatically around the first of March as spring planting begins in many parts of the country. This increased domestic demand combined with the recent, higher-volume international contracts required BSEI to be creative in scaling up production needs. The Accelerator was an obvious first choice.

Dr. Christopher Flood, Director of Research and Development, said The Accelerator’s laboratories are a great resource.

“We also are excited to work around other Mississippi-based emerging technologies,” he said. “We feel like this is the best scenario for us to expedite product research in our field.”

BSEI employs three full-time scientists as well as scientific consultants in the field of microbiology and has an ongoing contract through the University of Southern Mississippi for continued research and development.

SumaGrow products are a unique blend of microorganisms in humates that have demonstrated the ability to restore and maintain soil health. This results in higher quality, higher yielding crops with less irrigation.

Reconstruction will begin on the in-house laboratories after the relocation to The Accelerator.

Bio Soil Enhancers Inc. received the 2016 Governor’s Award for Excellence for Performance in Exporting for its success in maintaining or increasing export sales. BSEI has increased international exports by 189 percent since 2015.