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Dan Sztybel, CEO, Bountica
Dan Sztybel: 'We’re still optimizing the process, but we think we can get to a price that is competitive.' Image credit: Bountica

Bountica harnesses ‘nutritional immunity’ to disrupt food preservatives market

May 29, 2024

Israeli startup Bountica is seeking to disrupt the food preservation space with tasteless proteins (brand name: ‘ProServatives’) it claims are effective against a broad range of food pathogens and spoilage organisms thanks to a mechanism called ‘nutritional immunity.’

Bountica—which is backed by Israel’s Fresh Start incubator—uses precision fermentation to make a “protein that’s part of our innate immune system,” CEO Dan Sztybel tells AgFunderNews. “We’ve just found a way to commercialize it for the food & beverage market.”

The firm—which recently attracted investment from Sparkalis, an investment fund with close relations to global bakery ingredients and chocolate company Puratos—is now collaborating with Puratos to explore the potential of its proteins in some food applications.

Nutritional immunity

“The basics of the protein were known as having some anti-microbial effects,” says Sztybel, who came across Bountica last year while serving as CEO of a firm called Save Foods and joined the startup as CEO on May 1.

“The founders [computational biologist Dr. Maayan Gal, biochemist Professor Zvi Hayouka, and entrepreneurs Fabian Trumper and Shay Hilel] had been screening a lot of peptides and found this family of proteins that were effective against pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria [bacteria] but also against fungi and yeast.”

The mode of action is called ‘nutritional immunity,’ a defense mechanism used by the human body to limit the availability of essential nutrients such as iron and zinc to invading pathogens, explains Sztybel. By sequestering these nutrients, Bountica’s protein effectively starves the pathogens and stops their growth.

Making anti-microbials… from microbes?

Expressing anti-microbial products in microbes via precision fermentation is inherently challenging because the proteins produced by the host are potentially toxic to it, he says. “However, our bacteria [which Bountica has genetically engineered to express its target proteins] are not secreting the protein in the medium, so there is no effect on the host. The expression of the protein is intracellular [the protein remains inside the cell] and once the fermentation is over, we extract the protein from the host.”

Downstream processing (DSP) can be more expensive in precision fermentation systems that rely on intracellular expression (where you have to break open the cell to get the target protein out) versus extracellular expression (where the protein is secreted into the fermentation broth). However, DSP at Bountica is not prohibitively expensive, claims Sztybel.

“It’s not that expensive so far, based on the techno-economic analysis that we have run. We’re still optimizing the process, but we think we can get to a price that is competitive for the market, plus we’re using CMOs [contract manufacturing organizations] to scale up, so we’re not investing in a lot of capex.”

The Bountica team
The Bountica team. Image credit: Bountica

Unacceptable ingredients lists

Artificial preservatives from TBHQ to sodium benzoate are now on the ‘unacceptable ingredients’ lists of a growing number of retailers,​​ foodservice companies​​ and food manufacturers​​, notes Sztybel, while others are being directly targeted by lawmakers. Propyl paraben, for example, is permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration but has been banned in California (by 2027). Either way, firms are under increasing pressure to find alternatives.

In some cases, vacuum packing, aseptic packaging, and high-pressure-processing (HPP) have enabled brands to avoid preservatives altogether. In others, there has been a shift towards natural preservatives, from nisin and natamycin to cultured dextrose, rosemary and green tea extracts, and mushroom fiber. New anti-microbial proteins are also being developed by firms including Nomad Bioscience, says Sztybel.

But current solutions are not effective in every application, and high concentrations can be required to match the efficacy of synthetic preservatives, which can negatively impact affect flavor and increase costs, he claims.

One key advantage of Bountica’s proteins is that they can work across a wide pH range and have “pretty good heat stability,” he says. They are also effective at a very low inclusion rate and can be used in a wide range of food applications from hummus and bakery products to salads, spreads, sauces, meat, and plant-based meats.

“Some applications we’re looking at are very hard to preserve unless you add very significant amounts of existing [synthetic or natural] preservatives,” says Sztybel. “Whereas we’re using a very small concentration… usually between 0.05% to 0.3% of the total volume of the product.”

Food applications

One application Bountica is currently working on with a commercial partner is to replace preservatives in bakery products, he says. “Our protein is also very effective for fresh hummus; we don’t have to add ingredients [such as citric acid or lactic acid] to reduce the pH to ensure the effectiveness of certain preservatives such as potassium sorbate, which are more effective in acidic conditions.

“With just our preservative you can have hummus with the same texture as fresh hummus with more than 25 days shelf life without using ingredients to acidify the product or adding synthetic preservatives.”

Bountica also believes its solution could have potential in non-alcoholic beverages, where preservatives are often added to extend shelf life and ensure safety, whereas beverages with higher alcohol content naturally inhibit microbial growth due to alcohol’s preservative properties, says Sztybel.

“We believe the potential is here and we are in discussions with these types of producers. We also believe ProServatives could replace antioxidants such as TBHQ, BHA and BHT in some applications. We’re also looking at applications where there are currently no good solutions.”

The go to market strategy

Bountica is initially targeting the US market, for which it plans to go through the self-GRAS [Generally Recognized as Safe] process rather than the food additive process, he says. In Europe, the company is still assessing the best likely pathway. Labeling is yet to be determined.

Further reading:

Chinova Bioworks scales up production for mushroom-based natural preservatives after ‘incredible’ year

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