Midwest Bioprocessing Center is putting Peoria on the national skin-care map with its iActive sunscreen line
A smile spreads across Dave Demirjian’s face when asked why a Chicago-area businessman would start up a bioprocessing technology company in Peoria.
“People always ask, ‘Why the heck in Peoria?’” said Demirjian, the owner and president of Midwest Bioprocessing Center (MBC) at Peoria NEXT who splits his time between Chicago and a home in Oak Run, near Galesburg.
The reason is that Peoria is the birthplace of bioprocessing technology, said Demirjian. With its early history as a fermentation and bioprocessing technology hub, both as the one-time whiskey capital of the world and as home to the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (Peoria Ag Lab) with its role in the mass production of penicillin, Demirjian says the question should instead be, “Why not Peoria?
“There is a huge amount of bioprocessing and fermentation in the area, and that’s what we do,” said the 62-year-old Demirjian, who brags a PhD in genetics from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Michigan.
“It’s a very cost-effective place to work … and there’s access to the USDA lab, which is a great resource.”
From soybeans to sunscreen
Midwest Bioprocessing Center (MBC) is Demirjian’s third biotech start-up and focuses on natural and sustainable bioprocesses to produce ingredients for nutrition, health and personal care products. Its strength is in developing proprietary technology for the production and modification of carbohydrates that would otherwise be impractical or impossible to make.
The company conducts enzyme biocatalysis, fermentation, chemical synthesis and product purification. It can produce in quantities from gram to kilogram in house. MBC enables both the discovery of breakthrough drugs as well as the cost-effective commercial production of glycochemicals.
MBC started in 2019 as a spinoff of zuChem, another of Demirjian’s startups, which had developed a new technology to manufacture the sweetener Xylitol, using fermentation as opposed to chemicals.
In 2020, MBC acquired iActive Cosmetic Ingredients. iActive, in partnership with the USDA, created a new sunscreen made from soybean oil.
“They thought initially that it would be the world’s newest sunscreen, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hadn’t approved new sunscreens in over a decade, so they started looking at it as a sunscreen booster,” Demirjian said.
Upon acquiring the licensing to iActive, MBC partnered with Peoria’s Ag Lab to develop ferulic acid-based products that comprise iActive’s cosmetic ingredients. Their primary product is called FeruliShield, containing all natural ingredients and strong ultraviolet absorbers that act as an SPF booster.
FeruliShield can be added to many products, said Demirjian. Those include skin care cleansers, serums, creams and lotions, sunscreens, shampoos, conditioners and cosmetics such as foundations, primers and setting sprays. With the addition of FeruliShield, those skin and hair care products can offer the wearer protection from sun damage.
“The personal care industry is booming, and it’s projected to be a $16.3 billion market by 2030. Skin care is the fastest growing segment and sun care ingredients are expected to grow 68% by 2033,” Demirjian said. “People want to create a more effective skin care and they want products that are all natural — the ingredients, the packaging, everything.
“The properties of FeruliShield are really impressive. For example, you can add 5% of our product to 10% zinc oxide (an FDA-approved sunscreen) and boost the SPF from 20 to 40.5.”
The continued development of iActive is why the company has been named Innovation of the Year for 2023 by Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship.
According to the nomination, MBC “continues to develop and commercialize the iActive line, as well as perform research in the identification of rare sugars (oligosaccharides) that is partially funded by a $1.8 million grant from the NIH (National Institutes of Health). In May 2023, as an example of Midwest Bioprocessing Center’s continued path to commercialization, the company entered into a distribution partnership with McKinley Resources under which McKinley will be the exclusive distribution partner for FeruliShield products in North America. McKinley Resources is a leading supplier of skin care, hair care and over-the-counter active ingredients to the industry.”
“The McKinley-MBC partnership … comes at a critical time for sun-care-related ingredients,” said John Oliver, president of Dallas-based McKinley Resources. “We are excited to showcase MBC’s innovative ingredients to the personal care and cosmetic industry.”
Being recognized as Innovation of the Year is an exciting honor, Demirjian said.
“Obviously, I think our guys are really innovative,” he said. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I get so excited about this.”
Demirjian said his company, which just surpassed 10 employees, is raising equity financing to continue to scale the business, particularly the iActive products.
“Our big goal is to get into the market in a big way. We’re hoping this takes off rapidly …. If a medium-sized sunscreen picks it up, we’d need to get our scale up,” he said.
That would mean moving from Peoria NEXT to a larger facility, and yes, here in Peoria, Demirjian said.
“We estimate this could get to a $30 million business in the three to four years, with the potential to surpass that,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of biotech companies in personal care until recently. It takes a lot of testing. We’ve been lucky to have the USDA involved as they’ve been publishing data for the last 10 years about how good it is. It would take a lot for anyone to catch up.”
“This work is a game-changer,” added Lenora Fisher, director of business attraction at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. “To be able to show someone being successful here … it’s a great story line for Peoria.”
“To do this kind of large-scale disruption from Peoria is what we do here. What he’s doing with iActive dovetails with our strengths and who we are — our history and our future.”
To learn more about the Midwest Bioprocessing Center, visit https://mwbioprocessing.com/.