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Benefits of birch bark

The bark of one of the planet's oldest tree species is the basis of a startup company that is using U of M research.

April 1, 2013

U of M startup The Actives Factory, based in Two Harbors, Minn., is applying patented processing methods to extract and synthesize naturally occurring chemicals in birch bark to manufacture pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial products, and nutritional supplements. Based on more than 15 years of development by Pavel Krasutsky, director of the Chemical Extractives Program at the University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth, these processing methods yield compounds proven to promote better human health.

Birch bark contains three compounds from which researchers aim to derive nutritional supplements, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals: betulin, lupeol, and betulinic acid. All exhibit anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, treat fungal and bacterial infections, stimulate the immune system, and more.

"The birch tree is the oldest of all species of trees and it grows in the most severe of climates," explains Krasutsky. "Over hundreds of thousands of years the birch has evolved to use chemicals to protect itself from bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Its first barrier of defense is its bark."

Of course, one cannot just rub birch bark on the skin and hope for anything but some painful exfoliation.

Fortunately, NRRI's processes for extracting its beneficial compounds will now be put to use as The Actives Factory brings the health benefits of birch bark to lotions, soaps, dietary supplements, and more.

One significant challenge in getting to that point was solubility. The chemicals in birch bark do not dissolve in water, nor can they be absorbed by skin, both of which are necessary in topical applications. Krasutsky's research led to new processes that allow incorporation of the extracts into a wide variety of personal care products.

Birch Bark possibilities

  • Cosmetic ingredients to provide healthy skin and hair, as well anti-aging benefits.
  • Natural anti-bacterial additives to soaps and shampoos.
  • Renewable and organic plant protection products.
  • Natural polyesters for biodegradable "plastic" material.
  • Pharmaceuticals derived from nature instead of synthetics.

"Now we can get the natural chemicals right into products," says Brian Garhofer, president and CEO of The Actives Factory. "Pavel and his team have found solutions to the roadblocks that might otherwise prevent adoption of this product by the cosmetics industry."

With the help of NRRI's ongoing chemistry research and an industry advisory panel, Garhofer believes the foundation is in place to move these natural chemicals to the personal care market. Not only does he have a large inventory of pelletized birch bark and pure betulin powder ready for shipment to industries that would incorporate it into products, he also has a ready supply of raw material.

A waste stream byproduct, birch bark is available in large quantities from regional paper mills or other suppliers. The startup will obtain bark from sustainably managed and harvested resources in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Although naturally derived products can be costlier to manufacture, Garhofer predicts demand will grow in some niches. As consumers become increasingly interested in natural alternatives and environmental sustainability, he's confident natural products will soon compete strongly with chemical derivatives in the personal care industry.

"We believe we have some products that are unique, in demand, and highly beneficial and that come from a natural, sustainable, and renewable resource," says Garhofer. "What was once being burned is now being brought out for human health benefits."

The technology behind The Actives Factory was exclusively licensed to the startup by the Office for Technology Commercialization. The research was initially funded by the Potlatch Corp., Minnesota Power, and the University of Minnesota. So far, 20 patents have been issued to the U of M for the work at NRRI in developing the processes and different uses for the natural chemicals in birch bark and their derivatives, with more on the way.

The U of M's Natural Resources Research Institute at Duluth fosters the economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.

The U's Office for Technology Commercialization translates University research into new products and services that provide growth opportunities for its licensees, benefit the public good, improve the quality of life, and generate revenue to support the University's research and education goals.

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