Winslow, Maine Inventor Finds Market for Biodegradable Potato-Based Packaging

Elie Helou Jr. grew up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s. Bombs and bullets destroyed his home and his father's winery. He and his family would hunker down for months at a time in abandoned school buildings, not daring to venture out for fear of getting killed.

Nov. 2—Elie Helou Jr. grew up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s. Bombs and bullets destroyed his home and his father's winery. He and his family would hunker down for months at a time in abandoned school buildings, not daring to venture out for fear of getting killed.

Stuck in these empty schools, Helou, who moved to Winslow when he was 11, began to read science fiction books. The books nurtured a lifelong fascination that has now led Helou to an invention — packaging made from potato and tapioca.

It sounds innocuous.

But Helou's cartons, trays and packaging material do what others have tried and failed: They are fully biodegradable and depend only on annually renewable sources. Their only manufacturing byproduct is steam and they come at half to two-thirds the cost of paper and plastic alternatives. And they may provide a boon to the potato industry in Maine.

"We do have competitors around the world, in Germany, New Zealand and Thailand," Helou said. "They've had very limited success ... they can't make the starch moisture-resistant. We're the first company that is able to make it where the only waste is steam."

Helou's 2-year-old company is Biosphere Industries, based in Carpinteria, Calif. Drawing on nearly 20 years of experience in aerospace engineering of composite materials (he used to work for McDonnell Douglas), 40-year-old Helou said he formed the company to "think outside the industry."

He knew the odds. Other companies had spent about $600 million trying to develop but never perfecting moisture-resistant starch-based packaging. But Helou also knew the potential upside. Most forms of packaging afford manufacturers only a slim 2.6-percent profit margin after tax, but the starch-based version could offer profits in the 20-percent range, he said. The main alternative to Helou's primary packaging material, or PPM 100, is currently Styrofoam. But Styrofoam is facing increasing bans across the country. The synthetic material carries environmental risks, and is steadily losing its price advantage.

"A year ago, we were about double the cost (of Styrofoam)," he said.

"But now, with oil prices the way they are, we'll see a huge difference.

With the trend going this way, we'll be pretty darn close." So Helou devoted two years of work — 12-hour days seven days a week at times — to developing additives that modify the starch to make it moisture-resistant. The product's second generation, PPM 200, was perfected in November, allowing it to handle hot food like coffee, soup and noodles.

The viability of the product has not escaped the notice of the Maine Potato Board.

"We've had people coming in to talk about it," said Timothy P. Hobbs, the board's director of development. "If (Biosphere) can find someone willing to buy and support it, it would certainly impact Maine industry."

The technology may change the future of the state's potato growers. Farmers have enjoyed a good year, with yields above a 10-year average, Hobbs said. But the industry still faces larger problems, many of which are beyond the state's control. Maine's potato production has more than halved in the last 30 years, largely due to federal subsidies to western states like Colorado and Idaho. And prices have been beleaguered by changing dietary habits.

With a patent pending, Helou may stand to make a quick buck if he sells the technology to overseas competitors. But he is holding firm. "We're looking for a site to open up here," he said. "Our intention is to get the technology started here. Our machines can produce 1 million products a month. We have 24 machines. We are into high volume." Maine is in the running for a possible production site for Biosphere, given its proximity to a full-fledged potato industry. Helou said he has a personal affection for Maine potatoes. But he is looking at other states, like North Dakota, as well.

It's been a long way for a Winslow boy who arrived in the country with so little that his family had to live with his grandmother at her Lewiston home before settling in Winslow. Helou's mother, Rolande Helou, grew up in Maine and still lives in Winslow. Helou's father, whose winery business was destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War, took a job with the Scott Paper Co. mill in town, and the young man went to junior high and high schools in Winslow. He still dreams of taking up where his father left off.

"I moved to Santa Barbara (15 minutes from Carpinteria), because they have a growing wine industry," he said. He hopes to get into his own winery business one day.

But not before PPM takes off.

For now, Helou is betting that the market will take to his product. For him, it is the simplicity, cost-effectiveness and environmental friendliness of the idea that sells.

"We are closest to a potato chip," Helou said. "When you throw it away, it's like throwing food away."

To see more of the Kennebec Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to© 2004, Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.