My bet is that one of the trendy agtech and foodtech hashtags of next year will be #biodesign. And that’s kind of a passé prediction; it is already trending in some circles, not least among attendees of the recent SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco.
If bamboozled by this brave new hashtag, a good first touchstone is synthetic protein design. It is a field I alighted on earlier this year while writing about Amai Proteins — a company designing proteins that are thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Also grabbing attention here is Geltor, a Californian startup using similar computational biology and fermentation techniques — but the aim at Geltor is to produce collagen products without using animal byproducts. Last October, my colleague Louisa Burwood-Taylor reported on its raise of $18.2 million in Series A funding. Ever since, the newsroom at AFN has been monitoring them closely; and the latest big news? A new deal brokered with collagen behemoth GELITA on the sidelines of SupplySide West this Thursday.
Collagen collaboration: Late 2020 launch
According to a press release sent to AFN, the pair have now agreed to develop, produce and market “ingestible animal-free collagen proteins – to be launched in late 2020.”
Despite sending over a chummy photo of executives from both companies, this deal is clearly not a spontaneous bro-mance. The investor syndicate in Geltor’s Series A round last year already implied a sharp pivot to agri-food applications. Tellingly, that round was led by Cultivian Sandbox, the pioneer investor of the agriculture technology sector. Global food and ingredients group Archer Daniels Midland also invested via its venture arm ADM Ventures, along with Cavallo Ventures, the venture group of agriculture products retailer and ingredients business Wilbur Ellis — and then there was, drum roll … GELITA.
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GELITA’s participation in the round made it the first such major collagen producer to heavily invest in the potential and promise of biodesign. Now, with their new deal, they are taking their investment relationship further. It could all mean the pair become the first to meaningfully tap into the animal-free collagen market for food; most collagen on the market today is produced from the bones, skin and connective tissue of animals through a chemical extraction process that can take several months.
This drive for meat replacement puts Geltor in a busy area of the agtech and foodtech space. Dozens of animal-free meat product startups have gathered steam in recent months as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists seem to hope they will present a more environmentally sustainable, and ultimately cheaper, method of meat production than through livestock raising. And the movement resonates with environmentally conscious consumers.
While parallels can be drawn, Geltor’s objective is not to make a one-to-one replacement for existing products as the cultured meat startups are. Geltor’s focus is on designing collagen products that are not readily available through traditional means. Further, Geltor does not use any animal-based products in its process, whereas cultured meat startups often still do.
Founded in 2015 by Drs. Alexander Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov, Geltor has already released the first of a portfolio of completely animal-free, topical protein ingredients for the skincare market — look at Collume, a marine collagen; and HumaColl21, a human collagen.
Recreating human collagen by hacking the DNA of microbes
To do this, Geltor has a set of protein producing microbes — it then slots in various DNA sequences that effectively hack their microbial raison d’etre — once those sequences are in command, so to speak, the proteins set to creating collagen. Geltor has filed patents surrounding the process.
In a joint press release, Hans-Ulrich Frech, GELITA’s global vice president of business unit collagen peptides, described this addition to GELITA’s collagen portfolio as something that “will complement the already robust portfolio of scientifically substantiated Bioactive Collagen Peptides, which are key ingredients in foods and nutritional supplements for their protein content and physiological benefits.”
In that same release, Geltor CEO and co-founder Alexander Lorestani added: “This pact further solidifies our view that we have entered a new era in how proteins are being utilized to improve products that consumers around the world use every day. Today, the market is ready and eager for premium offerings of protein ingredients, and this is the need that Geltor is serving.”
Any other collagen agri-food tech startups on your radar? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org