GREENSBORO — Two hundred miles from the ocean, scientists in Greensboro have come up with a big idea involving little fish.

A tiny startup company that emerged from research done at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, or JSNN, has created artificial bait that could replace the hard-to-find fish used to catch crabs and lobsters.

Kepley BioSystems — named for a professor at JSNN — has received more than $1 million in state and federal grants to develop a product it calls OrganoBait. It’s getting rave reviews from fishermen who have used early versions of the product.

The company now makes batches of OrganoBait in a JSNN lab. By next summer, it hopes to be able to mass-produce the product for crabbers and lobstermen up and down the East Coast — and become a player in the multibillion-dollar U.S fishing industry.

“The thing that makes us different,” said Anthony Dellinger, the company’s president, “is that we’re scientifically engineered … and it doesn’t use any of the resources of the ocean.”

Like morning coffee

OrganoBait is a chalky, slightly spongy block about the size of a hockey puck. It weighs about a half-pound and slips easily into a crab trap or lobster pot where the fish bait goes. It’s made from widely available chemicals — not fish or animal parts.

Dellinger said OrganoBait doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it doesn’t spoil and it doesn’t hurt seafood or the ocean.

The white block gives off only a faint whiff of fish smell. Dellinger’s lab at the JSNN on East Gate City Boulevard, however, smells like a fish cannery in midsummer.

That’s because OrganoBait is made in the lab, in batches of 100 in muffin tins. The bait is largely a chunk of calcium, designed to dissolve slowly in water. Mixed into the calcium are a preservative and a pungent chemical attractant designed to smell like dead and decaying fish.

“It’s kind of like the smell of coffee in the morning for us,” said Lee Robertson, the company’s research scientist.

A walk on the beach

The idea for artificial bait came from an idea guy named Terry Brady, a serial entrepreneur who lives on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

Several years ago, Brady was walking on the beach near his home and noticed that fisherman needed most of the day to catch enough fish to bait their lobster pots.

In 2013, Brady recounted this story to Chris Kepley, a JSNN professor who specializes in nanobiology. The two knew each other from Luna Innovations, a tech company in Virginia. Brady was a company adviser; Kepley and Dellinger both worked there before coming to JSNN.

Over dinner, Brady gave Kepley an idea: There has to be a better way to catch fish than by catching fish.

Back in the lab, Kepley enlisted Dellinger’s aid to reverse-engineer the dead-fish smell that lures crabs and lobsters into traps.

At the time, Dellinger was doing his doctoral research on nanomolecules that could affect the inflammatory response that triggers arthritis. Kepley’s expertise was in nanobiology. They figured that their research into nanomolecules — molecules 1,000 times smaller than a human hair — contained the key to creating a substance that mimicked the smell of rotting fish.

They cracked the chemical code quickly. And in 2014, the year Dellinger received his doctorate in nanoscience, Kepley formed the company that would make OrganoBait.

Today, Kepley BioSystems has just two full-time employees — Dellinger, the company’s president, and Robertson, hired in 2015 after the company got its largest grant. Kepley, an associate professor of nanoscience at UNC-Greensboro, works for his company in the summer. Brady, a company co-founder, holds the title of chief inventor.

The company hasn’t strayed far from its roots. Its research lab is in the JSNN building. The corporate office is in the building next door. Both buildings are on the Gateway University Research Park campus.

“Kepley BioSystems has done an outstanding job of taking research and understanding the potential applications for it,” said James Ryan, the JSNN dean. “It looks like a real winner.”

Forage fish

Does the world need artificial bait? Turns out it might.

What Brady glimpsed that day on his walk on the beach was a worldwide shortage of forage fish — species of small oily fish such as herring, menhaden, shad and sardines.

These fish are crucial to the health of the natural world. Shore birds and marine mammals eat them, as do larger fish in the sea.

Humans also rely heavily on forage fish. They’re used to make fertilizer, cat food and animal feed. The fish oil sold at the drugstore? That comes from forage fish, too. And crab and lobster fisherman use forage fish to bait their traps.

In recent years, improvements in technology mean fishermen can catch more forage fish more quickly. The growth of fish farms, which use forage fish to feed their fish stock, add to the worldwide strain on the bait fish population.

Dellinger said that soon after the company was formed, he spent a lot of time talking to fishermen about how they caught crabs and lobsters. He said fishermen aren’t opposed to the idea of artificial bait. When they can’t find fish, they use pigs’ feet, horsehide, even cans of cat food with holes poked in the bottom.

Fishermen did complain to Dellinger about fluctuating prices and availability of fish bait. Once they had it, they had to freeze it. Catching fish to catch fish was the way it had always been done, but come to think of it, didn’t seem to make much sense to them after all.

“We didn’t know how big a problem this industry was having,” Dellinger said. “If there’s no bait in the freezer, they can’t fish. They can’t make money. That’s becoming more and more a reality.”

Taking notice

The scientific community has taken notice of OrganoBait. Since 2014, the company has received seven state and federal grants totaling $1.3 million to develop and test the bait. The largest, $750,000, came from the National Science Foundation in March.

After that big award, Scientific American, The Associated Press and NPR did stories on the company. Fishermen up and down the East Coast saw the media spotlight. A bait dealer in Florida told the AP this summer that while artificial baits have flopped before, OrganoBait “looks like it’s not going to fail.”

Dellinger said the company gets a couple of emails a week from fishermen wanting to try OrganoBait. Earlier this year, a Maine lobsterman passing through Greensboro stopped by the company’s office in hopes of scoring some lab-made bait.

The company has developed four different types of bait — one for stone crabs, blue crabs, American lobster and spiny lobster — that dissolve at different rates depending on currents, water temperatures and the time it has to stay in the traps.

“This is great. (Fishermen) want to help,” Kepley said. “They’re willing to set our bait for free because of the dire bait situation.”

What’s next?

Kepley BioSystems is hoping for a big 2017. A patent on OrganoBait is pending. It hopes to build its first production module that can crank out 4,000 pieces of bait per hour. The company is looking for private investors to help it grow.

Kepley and Dellinger are turning their attention to other nanoscience projects. They hope to create an artificial lures and chum for sport fishermen. Also in the pipeline are cosmetics with antioxidant properties and devices that might help doctors make quicker diagnoses.

“We’ve got a great team,” Kepley said. OrganoBait, he added, “is one of many ideas coming down the pike.”

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

InfoboxWANT TO KNOW MORE?

To learn more about Kepley BioSystems, visit www.kepleybiosystems.com.

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