Alex Huang is a mechanical and electrical engineer from Stanford who once worked for Steve Jobs. Now he's trying to keep the world's porcine population healthy.
"I'd never stepped on a farm in my life," he said. "My friends are all techies."
Partnering with a veterinarian he knows from the medical device business, Gin Wu, Huang decided a few years ago to investigate a plant-based natural water purifier. They went looking for the kind of traditional herbal remedy that humans have used for thousands of years but one that had been difficult to capture in a bottle.
"Gin and I said, 'We can do this. We're from Silicon Valley. We're problem solvers,' " Huang said.
The result they came up with may solve more problems than either originally envisioned. With $6 million in angel funding, Huang and Wu formed LiveLeaf.
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They created a water purifier from ingredients including pomegranate and green tea and tested it at Chinese pig farms. Huang said the farmers told him, "Hey, you know it works. But did you know that it stops diarrhea really well?"
When Huang asked how they knew that, the farmers told him the pigs drinking the purified water didn't have stomach problems. They then shocked him by adding, "It worked so well on our pigs, we gave it to our kids."
This year LiveLeaf brought to market its first product, called Grazix, being sold as a feed supplement to hog farmers. The timing could not have been better. A deadly virus is currently afflicting pigs in 16 states, and it's believed to have taken hold in the No. 1 pork producer in the world: China.
"It causes nearly 100 percent mortality in the younger neo-natal and suckling pigs," said Dr. Ching Ching Wu, a veterinarian who worked for years at Purdue. The so-called PED virus is not harmful to humans, but the fear is that it could kill so many pigs that pork prices would skyrocket.
Current precautions include stricter biosecurity on farms and more water, but "they really can't stop it," she said.