MINNEAPOLIS - Entrepreneur Scott Fahrenkrug sees raising pigs as one hearty business.
And that's not because of the food they can produce.
Fahrenkrug, a University of Minnesota professor, is changing genes in pigs so they grow up with diabetes or heart disease. Through his Minneapolis-based business, Recombinetics, he plans to sell the pigs to companies and labs for research or to test medical devices and drugs.
Genetically altering animals is a controversial practice, drawing the ire of animal-rights groups and those who believe that scientists shouldn't meddle with biological states. But Fahrenkrug believes that his business, which started in late 2008, will help improve medicine and devices before they are used on humans.
"Frankly, it's a hard sell to make sick animals," said Fahrenkrug, who keeps the pigs in a contract facility in Wisconsin. "The fact is, we need animal research to come up with the therapies."
Fahrenkrug said companies already use mice and rats - and pigs, for that matter - for medical purposes. But he said his business model would broaden the scope of testing because the pigs he plans to sell would be of similar weight as humans. Recombinetics would create "mini-pigs" for some companies that would weigh in the range of 150 to 200 pounds.
"We're trying to make them closer to people," Fahrenkrug said.
Dr. J. Michael Gonzalez-Campoy, CEO and medical director of the Minnesota Center for Obesity, Metabolism and Endocrinology, said using animals with ailments that resemble diseases in humans could ultimately make the drugs safer to use in human testing.
Fahrenkrug has big plans for Recombinetics and its team of four employees. Along with selling diseased pigs, the company also will raise pigs for use in medical devices, such as heart valves. Fahrenkrug estimates that the market for selling large animals for preclinical testing is $150 million a year.
Recombinetics wants to expand its technology for the agriculture industry and license it to companies. Fahrenkrug said his firm can eliminate certain genetic traits within cattle, such as inferior reproduction.
Recombinetics hopes to raise $3.5 million by January. The biotech firm signed a letter of intent to explore the possibility of building a facility at Elk Run's biobusiness park in Pine Island, Minn., where it could house 50 to 100 female pigs. Next month, Recombinetics will have office space at BioCombinator in St. Paul, Minn.
"This is yet another milestone achieved," Fahrenkrug
said. "We're marching forward."
He hopes to be profitable within 18 months of opening the Elk Run swine facility, and he plans to sell his first pigs starting late next year. Fahrenkrug has spent the past few years fulfilling patents and writing grant proposals for the business, while working his day job at the University of Minnesota.
Fahrenkrug, 48, said he was fascinated with science at an early age. He enjoyed looking under rocks as a kid and loved reading science fiction as teenager.
"I've been a biologist since I was born," Fahrenkrug said.