Based in Medellín, the capital of the northwestern region of Antioquia, in the Republic of Colombia (Colombia), Ecoflora S.A.S Corporation Colombia (Ecoflora) is a bio-agrotechnology company – an industry where technology and agriculture combine – that develops plant-based products for personal, household, agricultural and industrial use.
Because Ecoflora creates a wide variety of quality, value-added and environmentally friendly brands, the small and medium sized enterprise (SME) has developed a strong corporate identity and enjoyed remarkable market success.
At the same time, the company has leveraged its tangible and intangible assets, including its wide intellectual property (IP) portfolio, in order to trail blaze technology transfer collaborations with the private and public sector while supporting the different ethnic and farming communities in many parts of Colombia.
Ecoflora was originally a family-owned flower growing business established in 1998 by Nicolás Cock Duque – an entrepreneur who is a civil engineer by training. The SME was created due to Mr. Cock Duque’s desire to develop commercially viable products for the horticultural industry (such as pesticides) that are based on plant extracts and free of artificial chemicals.
Jagua (Genipa Americana; a small tropical tree), for example, is a plant that is native to South America whose fruit extracts have been used for food and drink, and for medicinal and cultural purposes. Indeed, generations of native communities in the region – including Colombia – have used the fruit to create body paint and insect repellent.
Other plants that have been used by such communities in this way include açai (Euterpe oleracea, a palm tree), borojó (Borojoa patino, a small evergreen tree) and Heliconia (a flowering plant). Arguably Ecoflora’s most promising product and brand, CosmeBlue is a plant-based blue dye that is used as a natural coloring agent in foods, cosmetics and textiles and was developed from the raw juice of the Jagua fruit.
With an expanding portfolio of plant-based products and brands, Ecoflora established a research and development (R&D) team of dedicated expert staff including scientists and technologists. “The purpose,” Mr. Cock Duque said, “is to find a…solution relevant to the various industries, from plant and plant extracts.”
To this end, the company’s R&D department has focused on three main product categories: goods for agriculture and horticulture; industrial goods; and ingredients for household products as diverse as cosmetics and pet care supplies. Subsequently, Ecoflora’s research team has created a wide variety of ingredients such as dyes, pigments, oils, and waxes and products including pesticides, deodorizers and soaps.
As of 2013, the SME had a state-of-the-art R&D facility (with computerized quality control processes based on custom made software) located in La Ceja, Antioquia. In the same year, the SME had approximately 40 employees at its headquarters in Medellín.
Due to a lack of ready access to capital investment in Colombia when Ecoflora was founded, Mr. Cock Duque initially had to rely on the generosity of family and friends in order to finance the company’s development. However, with a growing reputation for quality products and an economic liberalization policy in the country that supported entrepreneurs, the SME has managed to enter fruitful partnerships and financing agreements with national and international entities.
The company received funds in 2009 from the Promoter Project – a venture capital (VC) funds management organization created to stimulate the entrepreneurial community in Colombia. The Promoter Project not only funded Ecoflora’s development; it also became a shareholder in the SME.
Ecoflora, moreover, has benefitted from key funding provided by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID; the Spanish acronym) and El Programa España y sus Regiones Intercambian Conocimiento con Antioquia (ERICA), the committee for collaboration between academia, government and the private sector in the State of Antioquia.
Established in 2006 with the help of AECID and other organizations, ERICA has funded and promoted collaboration between entrepreneurs and academic institutions in the region – including the partnership between Ecoflora and the University of Antioquia (UdeA; the Spanish acronym). In large part due to such funds and partnerships, Ecoflora has been able to expand its R&D department, enlarge its product portfolio and extend its international market reach. The SME has used these resources to scale up production and prepare the needed capacities and competencies for a forecasted high demand for its CosmeBlue product.
The company, furthermore, has invested in product safety in order to satisfy the stringent food and safety requirements of various national, regional and international organizations including the Food and Drug Administration – an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that has a mandate for public health and food safety.
Other sources of finance and collaboration for Ecoflora include the Colombian government’s Administrative Department of Science and Technology (Colciencias; the Spanish acronym) and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism of Colombia (MCIT).
Via MCIT’s “Fomipymne” initiative, a competitive fund for SMEs in the country, Ecoflora managed to win funding in order to make investments across the board in its product and brand development goals and commercialization and marketing strategies.
Having established a well-funded research facility producing quality, plant-based products, Ecoflora has been keen to promote its creations via dynamic branding and commercialization initiatives. To achieve these ends, one of the SME’s earliest brand strategy achievements was to revamp the company’s previously generic corporate image into a fresh identity with global appeal.
Working with the brand development company Aldasbrand Colombia (Aldasbrand), Ecoflora completely remade its corporate image as well as the company’s product packaging. “The new image,” an Aldasbrand spokesperson said, “would retain its monolithic structure yet [transmit] values and attributes of accountability, effectiveness, sustainability, ethics, environmental responsibility and safety.”
As a result of Ecoflora’s corporate makeover, not only was the font, font size, and color (various shades of green, white and blue, in 2012) of the company’s corporate name changed; the SME adopted a new logo with smooth and simple lines that exude “personality” and reflect the company’s natural, botanical essence and heritage.
Commensurate with its revamped corporate identity, Ecoflora has developed a wide portfolio of quality and bio-natural (where natural ingredients and biotechnology crossover) products under its brands. In 2012, the company had over 15 major products including CosmeBlue (available in liquid and powder form and still awaiting regulatory approval, in 2013); EdiBlue (a food and beverage colorant that was awaiting regulatory approval, in 2013); Myrica Wax (extracted from Myrica pubescens or Myrica, a berry; it is used as a base in cosmetics and soaps); and Limpiador Multiuso (a cleaner and insect repellant).
The SME, moreover, has developed other products including essential oils, resins (a secretion by plants), deodorizers, exfoliating agents and disinfectants. Because of its expanding universe of brands and products, Ecoflora’s corporate footprint ranges across a number of industries including food and beverages, textiles, confectionaries, horticulture, agriculture, cosmetics and household goods for humans and pets.
In order to commercialize its many products, the company has focused its efforts on a niche market of quality, plant-based and natural goods. To ensure product quality while differentiating its goods in the market, Ecoflora has satisfied a number of certifications such as those supported by Société Générale de Surveillance S.A (SGS) – a leading inspection, verification, certification and testing company based in Geneva, the Swiss Confederation.
Due to the SGS certification process, since 2006 the company has met the requirements of good manufacturing practices (GMP) – guidelines that ensure product quality based on well-managed production environments (including staff training; good record keeping; and sound work procedures).
Ecoflora, furthermore, has enhanced its reputation for equity, fairness and environmental sustainability (especially among conscientious customers) by becoming a member of the Union for Ethical Bio Trade (UEBT) – a non-profit organization (NPO) that supports sourcing of natural materials that is respectful of biodiversity, native populations and traditional knowledge. One of UEBT’s seven guiding principles ensures that members equitably share the benefits of commercialization successes with the communities from which raw materials or traditional knowledge are sourced.
To enhance the company’s global profile, Ecoflora continues to engage with international industry partners and potential clients. The company has attended industry events such as the Endeavor Entrepreneur Summit (EES), a meeting held every two years that brings together VCs and entrepreneurs from emerging markets.
Managed by Endeavour, an NPO based in New York, the United States of America (USA), in 2011 EES hosted over 300 companies and 600 entrepreneurs – including Mr. Cock Duque. The event featured a series of workshops on a variety of topics including imaginative leadership, IP rights mentoring, and marketing and branding strategies. In the same year, Ecoflora exhibited its products via a specialized stand at In-Cosmetics, an established exposition of leading international brands in the personal care industry that is based in Richmond, the United Kingdom.
Ecoflora, in addition, has been keen to enhance its image on the Internet via a professional company website. Written in Spanish and English, the attractive, informative, and well-illustrated website utilizes well-known social network tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the video sharing software called Vimeo in order to promote the company’s mission, products and brands.
Having established a comprehensive branding and commercialization strategy, Ecoflora’s products (as of 2012) were commercialized in supermarkets across Colombia and internationally including Latin America, the European Union (EU), the Republic of Turkey and the USA.
Ecoflora has leveraged its international reputation for quality and equity in order to enter licensing and joint venture (JV) agreements with third parties around the world. The SME worked with EES’s network of partners (who provided legal and strategic support) and entered into an international JV in 2011, the first of its kind in Colombia, with Gowan Company, LLC (Gowan), a global developer of crop protection products that is based in the USA.
Via this partnership, Ecoflora created two separate and independent companies: EcofloraCares and EcofloraAgro. EcofloraAgro has developed its market share in a licensing partnership to develop new products (such as agricultural biopesticides) with Gowan. Regarding the JV, Mr. Cock Duque said, “We are very excited about having Gowan as our global platform to bring our innovative and green plant extract biopesticides to such important markets around the globe.”
In addition, the JV resulted in the American company taking over the Promoter Project’s shares in EcofloraAgro. As a result, the Promoter Project’s main influence in the Ecoflora family of brands focused on EcofloraCares – a company in which the fund management organization (as of 2012) held shares. EcofloraCares, meanwhile, has focused on food and cosmetics ingredient development for developed and sophisticated markets (including natural colorants, oils, and waxes), and personal care products (such as degreasers, hand soaps and insect repellents) in Colombia.
Further to its partnership with Gowan and the creation of two independent companies, Ecoflora has leveraged its know-how to provide technical assistance and research services to companies in Central and South America. The SME has also commercialized products and ingredients for products under license to other companies. Under such licenses, companies have the right to market and commercialize some of Ecoflora’s products through a different brand or trademark.
In order to ensure valuable IP assets while keeping avenues for expansion open, Ecoflora, EcofloraCares, as well as EcofloraAgro, have relied on the IP system. To this end, the SME and its offshoots have registered a number of national, regional and international trademarks and filed for patents. In addition, the companies have developed a robust portfolio of trade secrets.
Ecoswing (a fungicide made of plant extract that was developed in 2006) and SinBabosas (a pest repellent) are Ecoflora product names that the company has trademarked in Colombia and across the region in the Republic of Chile, the Republic of Costa Rica, the Republic of Ecuador and the Republic of Peru.
EcofloraAgro, moreover, registered a trademark in 2004 for L’ecomix (a preparation for destroying vermin, fungus, and weeds for both agricultural and domestic use) in one of its most lucrative markets, the USA, via the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Moreover, in order to protect its corporate name in the USA, the company registered a trademark for Ecoflora (2012) at the USPTO.
In the same year, EcofloraAgro secured its corporate identity in the UK when it registered a trademark for Ecoflora via the country’s Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) and in the European Union (EU) via a trademark registration at the Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market.
Ecoflora, in addition, has developed a patent portfolio that has protected the company’s ideas in a competitive and global marketplace. The SME filed a patent application for a “blue colorant derived from Genipa americana fruit” (2008) via the USPTO. The dye extracted from this unique process (which was developed via collaboration between Ecoflora and UdeA) has been used in the company’s flagship brands – including CosmeBlue and EdiBlue – and commercialized in a variety of industries.
EcofloraAgro, furthermore, filed an international patent application (in 2011) for “swinglea glutinosa leaves derived material in combination with avermectins for control of Acari” (used to create a pesticide that prevents the spread of mites and ticks) via the Patent Cooporation Treaty (PCT) system, managed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In total, Ecoflora and EcofloraAgro have filed 10 international patent applications via the PCT. Ecoflora, in addition, had six patent applications that were pending a decision (in 2012) via the USPTO.
In support of their robust IP strategy, the SMEs have ensured avenues for expansion remain open and protected via domain name registrations. In 2012, the SMEs had registered three domains: www.ecoflora.com; www.ecofloracares.com; and www.ecofloragro.com.
Parallel to reliance on the IP system and domain names register, and in order to diversify the means by which the companies protect know-how, the SMEs have kept some product development processes (approximately 40 of them) as trade secrets.
Ecolflora has established a versatile IP management strategy to ensure its growing range of IP assets and trade secrets. The SME’s IP department monitors the company’s intangible property; transfers IP rights to other companies where appropriate; and monitors the state of the art in target markets and industries of interest (in part so as not to infringe on the IP rights of others). In addition, the company adheres to the principles of equity established by its membership of UEBT.
To manage Ecoflora’s trademarks, the SME established a policy where protection is sought for trademarks before the associated product(s) is launched into the market or before entering into a licensing agreement with a third party (some of who want to market Ecoflora’s products under a different mark or brand).
This trademark strategy (with support from EES), was utilized in negotiation for the agreement with Gowan where the American company gained exclusive rights to develop, register and market EcofloraAgro’s products under Gowan’s brands and trademark. Furthermore, Ecoflora has developed a copyright and patent program for its brands, products and ideas involving clear labeling of the company’s publications, product packaging and website with the copyright symbol (©).
For the company’s patents program, Ecoflora developed a policy through which employees can submit an invention to the company’s IP manager who then reviews it, makes patent inquiries in the relevant IP offices and files a domestic and/or international application for patents if necessary. Parallel to this, Ecoflora protects its intangible assets – including the company’s trade secrets – via staff training under a confidentiality program. A key part of the program is to control staff access to important sections of the company’s premises, hardcopy documents and electronic files.
The company, lastly, includes confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses in its terms of employment and contracts with third parties. Indeed, Ecoflora’s proactive management of its IP portfolio has permitted the company to secure its intangible knowledge capital while exploring opportunities for collaboration with others and expansion into new markets.
Industry and government in Colombia have not had a long culture of collaborating with academic institutions in order to exploit the business potential of ideas via the exchange of know-how and technology. In order to bridge the collaborative (and funding) gap between industry, academia and government, and to enhance the country’s international competitiveness, Ecoflora has worked with business partners, state agencies and members of the country’s university network.
In 2008 the SME partnered with eight other entities – six Colombian universities, one engineering company and a biotechnology business – to create BioInTropic (BIT), a center for innovation for the Colombian bio-agricultural industry that is based in Medellín. Via BIT, Ecoflora and its partners have been able to combine human and material resources including over 40 specialists and 24 R&D laboratories to explore emerging industries such as bio-ingredients, bio-agriculture and biotechnology.
In part funded by Colciencias, ERICA and the Promoter Project, the center has also implemented an innovations management system that investigates commercialization opportunities and technology transfer avenues for its members. Indeed, one of the aims of the center has been to act as a conduit through which researchers can raise funds in order to commercialize market-oriented ideas in collaboration with entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk to see the process through.
To achieve these goals, BIT and its members take part in industry events that unite the country’s businesses, state and academic institutions. Such gatherings have been facilitated by the Tecnnova Corporation (Tecnnova), an organization established in 2007 that acts in conjunction with BIT as a matchmaker between industry and academia in Colombia.
In the 2011 Tecnnova business roundtable, over 30 universities, 200 research groups, 700 professionals and 400 companies – as well as EcofloraCares – took part in various seminars intended to identify emerging technologies, study the state of the art in various industries, and match compatible businesses and academic institutions. Working with Tecnnova and BIT, in 2013 Ecoflora was at the vanguard of the industry-university-government collaborations in an effort to create an innovation ecosystem in the country.
Colombia is comparatively small yet the country has been endowed with approximately 10% of the world’s biodiversity, including over 50,000 plant species. The country, moreover, has managed a steady growth in its economy since the 2000s that has led to an increase in per capita GDP (US$10,000, in 2011, Central Intelligence Agency).
This diversity and economic revival, however, has come under increasing threat from a variety of sources such as deforestation, soil and water quality degradation, air pollution, civil unrest and resources extraction – including a heavy reliance on volatile oil prices.
The upshot for Colombia has been a diminution in bio-diversity, high unemployment and adverse effects on public health outcomes for many communities. In support of the country’s rich ecological heritage and dynamic human resources, Ecoflora has implemented a sustainable environmental policy that also ensures the health of its partners.
As part of its commitment to the principles of UEBT, which include high standards for natural resources management in order not to diminish habitats, Ecoflora has sustainably harvested raw material for its products. To this end, the SME has worked with 12 Afro-Colombian communities (approximately 100 families) in UEBT certified regions between Antioquia and Choco in order to harvest Jagua using traditional methods and tools.
By using such methods, as compared to industrial-scale farming using highly mechanized practices, Ecoflora can limit its environmental impact to a relative small area that does not negatively affect surrounding biodiversity. Indeed, harvesting such abundant fruit (which can increase a manual worker’s daily income six fold) has been encouraged by Ecoflora and supported by various national and international agencies such the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
With such alternative and potentially high-earning income streams, many rural workers in the region can be dissuaded from farming the coca plant – a flowering shrub in the Erythroxylaceae family that is usually harmless but can be used as an ingredient to create illegal (yet potentially lucrative) and lethal drugs. Such drugs can damage the health of entire communities.
Not only is harvesting Jagua providing alternative incomes for marginalized Colombian communities in an environmentally sustainable way; the crop, and the blue dye derived from it, is a healthy alternative to potentially harmful synthetic blue dyes. In 2007, synthetically produced coloring agents for food were suspected to have adverse effects such as hyperactivity in young children (University of Southampton, 2007).
Naturally produced blue dyes, conversely, have no suspected negative side effects and have, as a result, become a popular choice in a number of industries including manufacturers of food popular with children – confectioners, for example.
Because Ecoflora creates products for the agricultural industry that are free of chemicals, moreover, the company has led the way in Colombia towards environmentally friendly farming practices – chemically based fertilizers and pesticides have been known to contaminate groundwater and degrade soil quality while endangering animal, plant and human life.
Ecoflora’s products, however, have no known adverse effects for humans, animals and the environment at large. Via its environmentally friendly and socially conscious business strategy, therefore, the SME has become a pioneer in Colombia for modern sustainable economic development.
In only a few years since its foundation, Ecoflora modernized its production processes and developed and expanded its product range while exploiting new partnerships, supporting local communities and preserving the environment. In the process, the SME has met with tremendous commercial success and became an award-winner.
Ecoflora won prizes for innovation at the National Innovations Awards (in 2004, 2008 and 2010) of Colombia. The awards recognize SMEs in the country that have shown pioneering business development strategies including collaborations with universities.
One of the company’s leading products, SinBabosas, moreover, won the José María “Pepe” de la Torre Prize for Innovation Award (2009, in the “raw materials provider” category) by the Colombian Center for Innovation in Floriculture (Ceniflores), a non-profit organization that supports the flower industry in Colombia.
Ceniflores’ award recognized SinBabosas because the brand offered the Colombian flower-growing industry a natural, sustainable and effective alternative for pest management. The SME’s ethical business practices and natural products, furthermore, were recognized via an honorable mention during the Biodiversity Awards by UEBT (2010).
Mr. Cock Duque and his colleagues, meanwhile, have been recognized by their peers for the pioneering way that they have steered the SME’s development. In 2007 the engineer-turned-businessman was elected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur, a prestigious recognition by Endeavor.
In addition, Ecoflora’s innovations chief, Ms. Sandra Zapata Porras (who was responsible for developing the company’s flagship blue dye) was awarded the Women in Science Award (2009) managed by several agencies and industry partners –UNESCO, L’Oreal (one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies) and the Instituto Colombiano de Crédito Educativo y Estudios Técnicos en el Exterior, an organ of the Ministry of Education of Colombia.
As of 2012, Ecolflora was still a small and medium sized company with grand ambitions for the future. As the SME’s founder said, “We [anticipate an] income [of] US$50 million [by] 2018.” “It’s ambitious, yes,” he added, “but that’s the plan.”
Ecoflora began as a family-run SME and in a few years emerged as a pioneer bio-agricultural company in Colombia with a growing international presence. Having created fair partnerships with traditional communities and proactive collaborations with government, academia and the business sector, the SME leveraged its tangible and intangible resources – including a vast and well-managed IP assets portfolio – to spur its national and international growth.
At the same time, Ecoflora established its strong brand and created a number of industry-leading products while being environmentally responsible. As a new dawn of socio-economic flourishing begins in Colombia, Ecoflora has established itself as one of the country’s most radiant stars.
This case study is based on information from:
Date of publication: November 26, 2012