Ohio’s toxic algal blooms aren’t a boon for Ohio lab that tests for toxic algae

You would think the rapid increase of toxic algae blooms in Ohio would be great news for a Columbus company that specializes in testing for algal toxins.

“It hasn’t been as great for business as you would presume,” said Stephanie Smith, co-founder and COO of Beagle Bioproducts Inc.

Smith remembers the moment in August when she heard on her car radio that Lake Erie’s annual toxic algae bloom had rendered the city of Toledo’s water undrinkable.

“My first thought was, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” she said.

She’s a photosynthetic microbiologist who’s spent her entire career researching toxic blue-green algae in posts at Battelle, Wright State University and the former Algaeventure Systems in Marysville.

She and an Algaeventure financial consultant, Eric Roy, started Beagle in 2012. Its main revenue source is lab services, but it also sells equipment and extracts algal pigments for calibrating measurements.

“Toledo isn’t the first time this has happened,” Smith said. “It’s the first one that made national news.”

But a grant the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency set up in response to the crisis allowed water departments to buy only testing equipment, not services, and specified a procedure that narrowed suppliers to one Pennsylvania manufacturer – effectively turning Beagle’s customers into its competitors.

‘Do it better than anyone else’

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and nearly all of Ohio’s inland lakes are man-made and shallow, and thus more susceptible to both the runoff of farm fertilizer and the sun’s warming rays, Smith said.

Runoff and climate change together have contributed to increasing blooms of toxic algae– which actually are bacteria that photosynthesize.

“This is one of the reasons you set up a business like this in Ohio,” Smith said. “We are the epicenter for freshwater harmful algal blooms in the U.S. You couldn’t be located better to have a toxin-testing service.”

The co-founders declined to reveal the company’s financial condition.

Toledo had Ohio’s only algal water advisory in 2014, but that followed five years of disastrous blooms in Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and others.

If Ohio has its own algal epicenter, it’s the city of Celina, which uses Grand Lake St. Marys as a water source. The city water department bought its own lab equipment in 2009 and has tested raw water going into its plant and the treated water headed to homes every week since.

For awhile, Celina would test for other municipalities at $45 a sample, said Mike Sudman, superintendent of water. But lately it’s stopped and refers those departments to Beagle, Sudman told me.

The tests are difficult, and expensive.

“We didn’t invent a new way to do this, we just do it better than anyone else,” Smith said. “We’ve developed an operational model that makes it commercially viable.”

“Happens to the cupcake shop, too”

After the Toledo water news, the Ohio EPA created a grant program, offering up to $20,000 for municipal drinking water departments to buy toxin-testing equipment.

The procedure outlined in the grant effectively narrows choices of testing kits to those made by Warminster, Pennsylvania-based Abraxis LLC. The company’s name is even in the lab procedure laid out in grant materials, which requires a test for a specific molecular structure found in different types of microcystin, the toxin that affected Toledo.

“Ohio EPA has developed this consensus analytical procedure in conjunction with U.S. EPA, public water system laboratories, Ohio State University-Stone Laboratory, Abraxis and other national experts,” the guidelines say.

A lab list on the agency website says, “Ohio EPA is only aware of one manufacturer” for the recommended testing kit: Abraxis.

Beagle’s tests identify microcystin under the required methodology and other algal toxins, Smith said.

Abraxis referred questions to Ohio EPA, which told me Abraxis was not involved in the decision. The agency said it is evaluating other companies’ kits.

The kits are $450 apiece, and Celina goes through one a month, Sudman said.

For a smaller water department, he said, “It doesn’t make sense to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on equipment (plus ongoing purchases of kits) if you only need to run a few samples a year.”

The tests don’t require a doctoral degree, he said, but accuracy can be affected by improper lab technique.

“There’s a lot of pipetting,” Sudman said.

The grant applies to equipment and not services because water systems need results speedily during a bloom, Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said via email. “Sending a sample out to a commercial lab would slow this process down.”

Beagle still tests for water departments in other states, as well as for recreational sites and owners of lake homes. CEO and co-founder Roy said it is pursuing other revenue sources that for now are under wraps.

“You know what, if you don’t want challenges, go back to being a professor,” Smith said she tells herself. “That’s (how) small business (works). This is the kind of stuff that happens to the cupcake shop, too.”

 

Photo: A flask of concentrated phycocyanin, a pigment that Beagle Bioproducts Inc. extracts from blue-green algae.

View original article at: Ohio’s toxic algal blooms aren’t a boon for Ohio lab that tests for toxic algae

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