Yeast tycoon supplies over 1,000 brewers
By Jim Nowlan
TOULON – Successful businessman and 1997 Stark County High School grad Lance Shaner, PhD and JD, inspired a gymnasium full of junior high and high school students this past Friday with lessons about how they also could make it big, if they were willing to pursue what intrigued them with tenacity and hard work.
“And it doesn’t matter where you come from, Stark County or anywhere,” declared Shaner. “The people I deal with all over the country don’t ask where I came from, though I am proud to tell them. They want to know what I can do for them.”
Since 2013, Shaner has been doubling the size each year of his Omega Yeast Co. of Chicago, which provides 100 strains of yeast to more than 1,000 craft brewers across the nation.
From a start-up business with no employees and which required Lance’s presence in the company laboratory 365 days a year, Omega Yeast is now so big that Lance has other people to interview prospective employees.
The son of Tim and Sue Shaner of Osceola, Lance was inducted last Friday into the Stark County High School Hall of Fame before a gymnasium filled with almost 300 students, who seemed to hang on his every word. The enthusiastic students peppered Lance with a score of questions after his remarks.
After graduation from Stark County High, Lance studied science at the University of Illinois, where he earned a degree in micro-biology. He was inspired at Urbana-Champaign by a visiting academic microbiologist, who recruited him to study with her at the University of Texas at Houston. His laboratory research on certain yeast proteins yielded several research publications, which became the focus of his PhD dissertation.
The PhD wasn’t enough for Lance. He figured that since there were few science PhDs who also had law degrees, he could do well in patent law. Thus, he studied and was graduated from the University of Houston Law School.
Yet life in a cloistered law firm on the 63rd floor of the Sears Tower was too confining for the Stark County farm boy. So, in 2013, he and a fellow lawyer formed Omega Yeast, as they realized there were few yeast suppliers for the exploding craft brewing movement.
Lance’s wife Meredith, whom he met at the U of I., was supportive though initially skeptical of the venture. After all, they had two very young children, Genevieve and Annelise.
In the first years, Lance worked every day of the year, as he was the only scientist at his business then. He told the students that one year he even had to get up from the Thanksgiving dinner table to go into the lab to deal with an issue.
“Keep your eyes open for an opportunity, as I did, and then go for it,” Lance told the students, “but don’t expect it will be easy, or without a great deal of stress. Yet I could handle the stress, because it was for my own – and my family’s – gain.”
Omega Yeast is now starting construction on its own business building and laboratory. And Lance said he and the family can even take a vacation now and then.
Lance noted that he and his brother Zach of Kewanee are now also expanding into the hops growing business. They have started with one acre of 20-foot tall hops plants on the family farm east of Osceola.
They have been selling hops buds from their first crop, which was harvested this past fall.
Lance recalled with fondness and appreciation his Stark County High teachers, especially Tim Wagner, who taught him chemistry, and the late Glenn Buchert, his biology instructor.
Lance said his long-term goal for the business is to keep growing and become an acknowledged leader in the industry in regard to customer service and innovation.