Alexander Fleming found penicillin growing in a petri dish in the basement of St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
Bryan Hiromoto discovered his plant growth enhancer in a bag of nutrients for mushrooms on his farm in Haiku.
The magnitudes of their discoveries vary greatly. Fleming won a Nobel Prize for bringing antibiotics to the world and saving lives. Hiromoto’s work led to an organic solution that speeds up the metabolism of plants at the molecular level and enhances growth.
What they do have in common is a chance happening that led to their discoveries.
“It’s kind of cool. . . . It’s one of those things we found by accident,” said Wesley Chun, chief science officer of Grower’s Secret, the company that markets Hiromoto’s discovery.
The result of Hiromoto’s accidental finding and the development of the plant growth enhancer have led to Grower’s Secret being selected as a finalist in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation 2011 Hawaii Business Innovation Showcase. If the company is selected in early September by a panel of government and business leaders as the state or county winner, Grower’s Secret will have an opportunity to promote itself at venues and events surrounding the international economic conference in November.
The company’s product, Grower’s Secret Pro, is made of edible mushrooms that are fermented in a solution of Maui pineapple juice, pureed papaya and molasses for 18 months. The product “entices a plant to speed up its metabolism, and it allows it to accept more nutrients and water,” Chun said.
“This promotes increased plant growth, increased resistance to pests and disease, reduced crop cycles and increased shelf life of fruits and vegetables,” said Chun, who worked with Hiromoto to develop the product.
The company also sells Grow Big 521, which includes a fish emulsion fertilizer in the mix. A gallon of the product goes for $18.99 on its website. An ounce of Grower’s Secret Pro, which will treat 1 to 4 acres, goes for $94.99.
“It’s kind of like a fertilizer, but you have to have fertilizer for the plant,” Chun said in explaining why his product is marketed as a “plant enhancer.” “This thing takes the fertilizer faster (to the plant).”
Other “plant enhancers” on the market use live organisms, such as fungi or bacteria. Compared with those products, Chun said, Grower’s Secret is more reliable, has a longer shelf life and requires smaller amounts to do the job. For example, four drops in a gallon or an ounce to an acre will work for Grower’s Secret, while live organism enhancers require as much as a quart or gallon per acre, he said.
Grower’s Secret Pro, which is certified as an organic product by the nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute, has been shown to improve yields in various studies – cucumbers by 60 percent, tomatoes by 30 percent and broccoli by 23 to 24 percent. Other plants showing increased growth with use of Grower’s Secret include basil, anthuriums and coffee, he added.
This year, the company reorganized as the corporation, Grower’s Secret morphing from Advanced Biological Research, a limited liability company formed in 1998. The product also was rebranded from Maui Liquid Compost Factor or Maui LCF, which was sold in concentrated form only, to Grow Big 521, which can be purchased ready to use, and Grower’s Secret Pro for commercial growers, Chun said.
The company set up its Internet site earlier this year and has not advertised much yet, he said. Still, the company’s dollar sales are up five times over last year.
The company’s production facility is in the old Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. hospital in Puunene; the sales and marketing offices are in San Francisco, and the warehouse is in Oakland, Calif.
Chun expressed concern about meeting increased demand with current production facilities in Puunene that use 55-gallon drums for fermenting. The company is looking for investors to help expand the production into brewery-size operations, he said.
Growth would likely mean moving production to the Mainland to trim shipping costs, but Maui still would be the site for research and development, he said. The company currently employs about 10 people, two on Maui and the rest on the Mainland.
Chaz Berman has been brought in as chief executive officer. He brings his experience of founding and chairing a company, UniPrivacy Inc., and serving as chairman and chief executive officer of United Consumer Benefits Network Inc. He also was chief executive officer of MyPoints.com, restructuring the company ahead of its acquisition by United Airlines, the company website said.
Albert Pleus, a venture capitalist, is listed on the company website as chairman and co-founder. He has more than 20 years of investment banking, management and business operations experience in green technology, agricultural bioscience, telecommunications and digital-image distribution, the website said.
This budding company began from the seed planted by Hiromoto’s chance discovery in 1995. The founder and operator of Haiku Mushrooms was growing and marketing fresh mushrooms, when he “saw something happen in his cultivation bags,” said Chun, who is good friends with Hiromoto from their University of Hawaii-Manoa days.
The gardener’s scourge, nematodes, had contaminated one of his 40-pound bags of mushroom-growing mixture. The organism is difficult to manage. The now-banned chemical DBCP had been used in Maui fields for years to control the pest on pineapples.
“The next day, they were all dead,” said Chun, who was on the faculty of the University of Idaho at the time. “That’s when we got interested in it.”
Hiromoto took the next scientific step and scoured the island for mushrooms, hundreds of different kinds, Chun said. A handful had nematode-killing properties. He eventually settled on laetiporus sulphureus, or the Chicken of the Woods fungus, a common mushroom found on the Mainland and in Europe, as his nematode killer.
Chun urged Hiromoto to examine the chemical basis for the nematode killer by boiling it, which Hiromoto did.
What he discovered was that the nematode-killing properties were lost, but he also found that the infected plants grew as well as the noninfected ones. The mushroom was helping nematode-infected plants to continue to thrive.
“You got a gold mine,” Chun told Hiromoto. “You got something that made the plant grow faster.”
In looking back at that discovery, Chun quoted Louis Pasteur, the noted pioneer of the germ theory: “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”
In their case, “it took two minds to be prepared,” he added.
The chance discovery may not rank up there in humanitarian terms with penicillin or in the profit earnings of the Post-it note, but it is noteworthy nonetheless.
“It’s a local boy thing,” said Chun. “This is technology that grew up here on Maui. . . . We are a rough gem in the Pacific.”
* Grower’s Secret: www.growerssecret.com