Crazy ideas can lead to great things

In 2001, Serge Auray was watching a report on Britain’s foot-and-mouth outbreak, a horrific crisis in which 10 million sheep and cows were culled and then burned on pastures they once grazed.

“I’m watching this and I say to my wife, ‘we can visit the moon but we can’t prevent the spread of this disease. How is this possible?’ ” recalls Auray, who owns a 140-employee cleaning company in Quebec specializing in sanitization and disinfection of institutional and industrial sites.

So he set out to find a non-toxic disinfectant to use in barns to reduce disease transmission without raising food safety issues.

It was a tall order, but Auray was determined. He not only succeeded, but created an opportunity to establish a new commercial crop in Canada. It took time and the opportunity will require farmers to match his determination.

Auray’s research him to Sylvain Quessy, a microbiology expert and professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Montreal.

“Sylvain proposed we use a molecule called thymol,” says Auray.

Thymol is found in thyme oil. The product would have to be water-based, but oil and water don’t mix.

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Such challenges took five years of research to overcome and required Auray to fund a state-of-the-art lab for his new company, Laboratoire M2. But the end product surpassed all expectations.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Thymox and rated it effective against viruses such as H1N1, bacteria and fungi and it works faster than products such as Lysol or Clorox. It is also non-toxic, biodegradable and smells good.

“The EPA rating is totally fabulous, it’s absolutely incredible,” says Auray.

What does this mean for farmers, and what’s the lesson in Auray’s story?

First, if Thymox becomes, as Auray expects, a leading biological disinfectant, he will need a lot of thyme oil. He wants to source it locally.

Test plots show Quebec-grown thyme can match the quality of imports, but is it cost-competitive? Agronomic issues must be solved, such as weed control and getting an optimum level of thymol-rich oil.

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There’s no huge publicly funded research effort behind it, although Ottawa provided a $65,000 grant for the test plots. That means individual farmers will have to invest time and effort in hopes of a payoff.

“I need crazy people like me,” says Auray. “People who like to go outside the box, are innovative and believe in this project.”

The potential is substantial. The global market for disinfectants is $18 billion a year, and green products are expected to grow to 50 percent of that within a few years. With EPA certification opening the door to global markets, Auray expects sales of Thymox, currently $1 million a year, to skyrocket.

“I get calls every day from big global organizations wanting to know about our technology,” he says. “People are very concerned about the health effects of chemical products. “

The big lesson here is that there are all sorts of innovative people who get these crazy ideas and invite farmers to dream with them.

Just because something is new and untested isn’t a reason to automatically dismiss it. Hooking up with innovative people with big dreams might give you a chance to ride the next big wave.

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