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Instructors, students use hedge apple-based oil from Iowa to build business

Seeds of business

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BLOOMFIELD — It was a business opportunity just lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. Literally.

But Todd Johnson, now president and CEO of Osage Healthcare in Bloomfield, found a way to use oil extracted from hedge balls — also known as hedge apples or, even, monkey brains — to build a business.

Before the invention of barbed wire, farmers planted rows of dense hedge trees to contain their livestock. Hedge balls fall from the trees each year.

And while they long have been considered a nuisance on many Midwest farms, they also provide a sustainable source of raw material for Johnson’s eventual hair care and cosmetic products.

“I’ve spent 20-plus years of my professional life developing drugs for a living,” said Johnson, who was the initial CEO of KemPharm in North Liberty and an early investor in the pharmaceutical company. “While I understood the science and positioning pharmaceutical products, I didn’t know how to do retail hair care.

“I thought science and technology would drive the ‘wow’ factor in retail hair care as it did in pharmaceuticals. I was totally wrong because in pharmaceuticals the Food and Drug Administration is the ultimate judge.

“In retail hair care, there’s elements of performance and marketing. It’s a high touch, rather than a high-tech endeavor.”

Squirrels and deer

Johnson began working with hedge balls in 2012 after getting a phone call from lifelong friend and primary investor Erik Tjaden, CEO of Tjaden Biosciences in Burlington. Tjaden hired Johnson to come up with new products.

Johnson recalled a story from his great-uncle about cutting open hedge balls during the Great Depression and rubbing them on skin cuts and abrasions to help them heal.

“My great-uncle had visited me while I was in graduate school at Indiana University,” Johnson said. “He wanted me to find out what compounds were responsible for the healing. I was working on my Ph.D. and really didn’t have time to do it.”

But when Johnson began researching hedge balls, he found that a number of academic institutions had isolated compounds that had antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties.

Johnson believed a product could be built around the hedge ball if there were properties that would create that wow factor.

He knew that oils are very dominant in hair care, skin and beauty, particularly those that repair the skin or hair.

“Having grown up in southern Iowa, I remembered that squirrels and deer eat the seeds of a hedge apple and leave the rest scattered around,” Johnson said. “With my pharmaceutical background, I knew that mammals eat seeds because they have nutrition. Things that have nutrition have amino acids, proteins and high-value oil in them.”

Johnson used tweezers to pull seeds out of a hedge apple. He confirmed there was oil with properties that repair hair and skin and Tjaden made the decision to financially support Osage Healthcare.

Pomifera vegan oil is available to professional beauticians who use four drops with hair coloring chemicals to restore body and shine to hair that has become fine and brittle. A half-ounce bottle sells for $80, but salons typically charge extra for the treatment.

‘In love with it’

It’s always a struggle to bring a new product to the market, especially in hair care where well-established brands such as L’Oreal and Redken provide formidable competition.

For Johnson, getting his pomifera vegan oil, shampoo and cleansing conditioner into the hands of beauticians came after a meeting with Chris Fiegen, director of Capri College in Cedar Rapids.

“I sat down with Todd about 15 months ago,” Fiegen said. “I had received a call from Joni Evans of Evans Enterprises, which owns the Cost Cutters salons. She had tried Todd’s pomifera oil for the first time and absolutely fell in love with it because it was a perfect match for her type of hair.

“I told Todd that if he could convince my staff that this was a good line, we would begin carrying it. When I checked back with the staff after they had been using samples for about two weeks, everybody but one or two said they were absolutely in love with it.”

Fiegen said the pomifera line has been Capri College’s best-selling product line since the school began carrying it at all four campuses.

Renee Ellsworth of Bella Capelli Salon in Hiawatha learned about the pomifera product line from Mark Evans, owner of Evans Enterprises.

Ellsworth, a beautician for 32 years, met Evans for lunch, she recalled, and said she “was picking his brain about what is new in the industry, and he told me about a chemist in southern Iowa who had developed a new hair care line that included 100 percent vegan oil.

“I walked into one of Mark’s salons as a consumer to check out the pomifera product line,” she said. “I was impressed with the knowledge of the stylist, who told me about infusing the 100 percent vegan oil in all their colors.”

Ellsworth noted that the hair care industry is changing in terms of how it compromises customers’ hair to get the look that they want.

“By infusing the pure vegan oil during the coloring process, I am able to pull the lighteners out to the end of the hair and provide a reconstructing chemical service for my customers,” she said. “The oil is very light weight.”

Johnson said his 3,000-square-foot processing center in Bloomfield is producing enough pomifera vegan oil to supply eight cosmetology colleges and 170 salons across the country. He buys hedge balls from local farmers, 4-H groups and the Amish, paying about $180 per ton.

Last year, Johnson signed an exclusive agreement with Limelight, a skin care product line from cosmetics company Alcone, to market pomifera vegan oil as One Drop Wonder. As Alcone builds sales, Johnson will need to increase production to meet demand.

“Erik (Tjaden) and I have a long-term vision beyond hedge balls and pomifera oil,” Johnson said. “There are all kinds of abundant oils in nature.”

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