The Voice: Summer 2002

The Voice

Allan Kramer: farmer, chemist, entrepreneur

By Joel Schreurs ('02)

Allan Kramer's labs at Sioux Pharm produce industrial enzymes.  The machine pictured separates enzymes, water, and sugarThe first time I met Allan Kramer he was sweating. His son David and I were attempting to soak our brownies in milk to the optimal level of mushiness when he shattered our concentration. Allan stormed into the house (which was fine, since he owned it), a slight belly spilling over a well-worn pair of blue jeans, his flannel shirt soaked in sweat.

My friend just grinned and licked the brownie crumbs and milk from the corners of his mouth. “Dad just went for a run,” he explained. “He doesn’t like to wear shorts. Still too much farmer in him.” I debated between pondering my brownie and introducing myself. Allan chose the latter for me.

“Hello, young man.” Mr. Kramer’s voice thundered as he vigorously shook my hand. He spoke with the enthusiasm of a high school basketball coach—his voice booming as the words leapt from his mouth in short, choppy phrases. He informed me that he was, in fact, pleased to meet me, demanded my basic autobiographical information, and then declaimed the latest farm news to David and me.

Seven years ago, before I got to know Allan, I would have assumed that he was the type of guy who prompted a relative from Chicago to say that she could never live in Iowa. Apparently, she was under the impression that there is nothing in Iowa but corn, pigs, and the brainless hicks who raise them. Now I wish she could meet Allan Kramer.

Despite his John Deere mailbox, Allan Kramer is anything but an ignorant corn-wagus. Although his sons accuse him of earning his fair share of Cs at Dordt College, Allan earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the American University in 1972. According to Allan, he was “in the military during the day and graduate school at night.” Among other things, Allan’s time in the military included the development of an infrared television camera that enabled soldiers to see at night. When pressed, Allan will also admit to assisting in the development of Liquid Crystal Displays—a product familiar to Americans who own glow-in-the-dark watches or VCRs. “But that was just a small project,” he says.

After spending three years with the National Institutes of Health and publishing extensively on multiple sclerosis research, Allan and his family, consisting of his wife, Carol, two sons, Tim and David, and daughter Rachel, moved to Northwest Iowa and spent several years working on a small family farm.     

Although farming consumed most of his time, Allan also taught chemistry at several area colleges including Dordt, Northwestern, and the University of South Dakota.

In 1988, the lure of the sciences was too strong for Allan to resist. “I enjoy agriculture and right now it’s a favorite hobby of mine,” Allan explains, “but I’ve always been a scientist.” So when NOBL Laboratories of Sioux Center, Iowa, invited him to start up its new Biochemical Division, Allan dove right in.

As we talk, Allan lazily rocks back in his chair, crosses his legs, and flips a pencil between his fingers.

“We were isolating proteins from animal tissues for medical research,” he explains. He makes it sound as easy as separating black jellybeans from red ones. “We developed a whole line of experimental vaccines that would have an effect on pigs mainly—how fast they would grow and how many baby pigs would be born.”

When Allan left NOBL Laboratories in 1995 to start his own business, he took a few of the products he cultivated there along with him. He has not limited himself to those products, however. His two businesses, Sioux Pharm and Sioux Biochemical, have since expanded their production to include seven lines of products. These products range from twenty-eight different research proteins used for cancer, nerve regeneration, and eye deterioration research, to Hemin Chloride used to produce artificial human blood, to memory enhancement drugs.

Located in a long, narrow building across the alley from Doc’s Bar, Sioux Biochemical has probably gone unnoticed by most Sioux Center residents since Allan and a single employee started it in 1995. The goods the company produces, however, are making international appearances.

Sioux Biochemical is the sole producer of many of the types of research proteins they manufacture. While this might not sound overly impressive, their product, according to Allan, “is probably found in almost every country around the world via our distributor, Sigma Chemical.”

In 1997 Allan purchased an old furniture warehouse, expanded the building to thirty thousand square feet, and started his second business: Sioux Pharm. For example, Sioux Pharm is a large U.S. supplier of industrial enzymes. Other products are marketed to treat depression, age-associated memory loss, and as Ritalin substitutes.

Sioux Pharm’s largest line is used to treat another common American ailment: arthritis. Twenty million Americans presently use Sioux Pharm’s product through items found on the shelves of their local Wal-Marts such as Move Free, Flexigen, and Ostibiflex. Sioux Pharm is the largest distributor of this pain-killing product in the U.S. and third in the world.

Although my relative might not understand why owners of prosperous businesses such as Sioux Biochemical or Sioux Pharm would want to locate on the plains of Iowa, it makes perfect sense to Allan. According to him, all of their products are related to agriculture. Industrial enzymes come from bovine pancreases, memory drugs from soybeans, and arthritis medicine from cow tracheae. With a hint of pride in his voice Allan also informs me that, at forty thousand pounds a day, Sioux Pharm uses almost a third of the tracheae produced in the United States. They are trucked in from slaughter
houses all over the United States—from Colorado to Indiana to Texas—but are primarily from the Midwest.

Since I’ve never seen a trachea, it’s difficult for me to imagine what forty thousand pounds of tracheae must look like. Allan offers to show me.

Allan bolts out of his chair and strides out of the conference room past two workers munching on Doritos during their afternoon break.

We pass through a door marked “Employees Only” onto the one-and-a-half story production floor packed with giant tanks and pipes. Allan marches past the truck bays up to a stainless-steel bulk tank and slides back the cover, revealing a brown, foaming broth. For an instant I imagine that the contents of the tank must be similar to the brew of Macbeth’s witches, but Allan snaps me back into reality. “This,” says Allan matter-of-factly, a long tube dangling from his finger, “is a trachea.”    

As we follow a long pipe to a second tank, Allan, nearly shouting to be heard above the constant hum of equipment, explains to me that by the second day of the process the tracheae are broken down into a liquid. Allan opens up a valve on the tank and a pale yellow liquid, similar in color and texture to corn syrup, pours out into a plastic measuring cup. “Touch this and rub your fingers together,” Allan instructs me. “That’s what makes your joints operate more smoothly.” I do and my fingers glide smoothly over one another. “We take it from this syrup to a taffy, then a fudge, and then to a dried powder—that’s what’s in these drums over here.” Allan points to four pallets stacked with plastic blue barrels. “That’s what goes into the pills on the shelves of Wal-Mart,” he explains.

The by-products produced by Sioux Biochemical and Sioux Pharm can also be found on the shelves of Wal-Mart. For example, the three truckloads (fifteen hundred gallons) of leftover fat extracted from tracheae each day are sold to make laundry detergent. Less directly affected is food production, which Sioux Biochemical takes part in by selling protein by-products for use as fertilizers.

Before I met Allan, I assumed that all chemists spent their free time reading scientific journals, pondering protein structures, and mixing up their own deodorant and hair dye. If so, Allan is certainly not a typical chemist. Allan is just as comfortable discussing the best type of tires for his son’s Jeep or commenting on Mid-East politics as he is offering the details of follicle-stimulating hormones. He also enjoys spending time outdoors on his hobby-farms and pheasant hunting. “I have ponds and trees, and I look at wildlife and prairies and stuff like that,” says Allan.

Try contacting Allan and you will soon discover that being actively involved in his church is also important. I call one Friday afternoon and discover that he is in Grand Rapids for the weekend working with a synodical study committee for the Christian Reformed Church. “We’re working on the ethics and philosophy of assisted reproductive technology—things like cloning, bio-engineering, and bio-technology.”

The next Tuesday I call and find that I’ve missed Allan again. This time he is in Lincoln working on one of his favorite tasks, a church plant.

“I enjoy working with the denomination in selecting sites and starting new churches.” Allan does not bother to specify whether or not church planting is part of his role as Classis Heartland’s representative to the denomination’s Home Missions Board. Somehow, Allan also manages to find room in his schedule to lead a group called Prime Time, a ministry for single adults he and his wife have been involved in for twenty-eight years.

All this from a guy with a stuffed pheasant on his desk. Take that, Aunt Janae.