Editor’s Note: This post was updated on May 13, 2019.
We caught up with Elo Life Sciences CEO Fayaz Khazi ahead of his speaking slot at Future Food-Tech in New York next month to learn more about its innovative approach to food tech.
Plant-based proteins and alternative ingredients are taking the food industry by storm. Countless retailers and manufacturers are looking for ways to make quick modifications to their product offerings to answer consumer demands for products offering more protein, healthier impacts, and a reduced impact on the environment.
Elo Life Systems, the food-focused subsidiary of the recently listed gene-editing group Precision Biosciences, is specifically focused on developing food crops with nutritionally-improved characteristics, starting with canola, sweeteners, and pulses for plant-based protein products.
Fayaz Khazi, CEO of Elo Life Systems, is speaking at the Future Food-Tech conference in New York June 18-19. He will be sharing his thoughts on developing and scaling the next generation of plant-based protein products alongside founder and managing director of Big Idea Ventures Andrew Ive, CFO of Impossible Foods David Lee, VP of R&D for Maple Leaf Foods Jitendra Sagili, senior director of R&D for Danone North America Jonathan Gray, and Gregory Paul, Global Marketing Director, Consumer Segments, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences.
“The success of the Future Food-Tech and World Agri-Tech conferences speak to the amount of interest within the investment community and scientific community regarding the application of genome editing,” Khazi told AgFunderNews. “What we want to do ideally is to generate interest about the possibilities of using our technology, ARCUS, in novel food ingredient products and in a way to improve human health, which also improves the health of the planet. Those are our big picture ideas and through conferences like this we want to get the word out and talk about our mission.”
We caught up with Khazi to learn more about Elo Life Systems and Khazi’s view of the gene-editing space.
Why focus on food?
We are dedicated to improving life. At Elo and Precision, this is our mission, that we are dedicated to improving life. When we formed Elo last June, we knew we wanted to build a team that would deploy our technologies and know-how in the health and wellness space. We asked, “What’s the best way to address that?” We had two choices. One was to go after traits and the typical seed industry model. The other was more near and dear to us, which was to relate to consumers and the food industry. We saw that as the shortest path to making an impact on human life and to connecting the dots between what we eat and how we live.
At this point, I think we have enough knowledge on how things work in plants. What’s missing is a commitment towards understanding unmet needs in the food sector and translation of knowledge to products. This is where our business model based on partner-driven innovation helps tremendously. We chose to deviate from the standard model where one invests in a trait that may or may not be valuable five years down the road because of changes in the industry or consumer preference. Instead, our collaborators define the trait or help define a new product profile which we co-develop. The food industry has been waiting for the foodtech sector to innovate and specifically in things that could help the industry address consumer demand without having to wait for a whole additional decade! In light of all the changes in the seed industry, we saw an opportunity to integrate ourselves into the food ecosystem and to help the food industry innovate faster and better.
How does your technology differ from CRISPR?
In very general terms, all gene-editing technologies cleave the DNA at designated sites. What part of the DNA you break, the fidelity of the break, what you insert, and how you select an editing strategy is where one can differentiate between the companies and technology platforms. The difference between CRISPR and our product-ready technology, ARCUS, is that ours is a naturally-derived system that coevolved with complex genomes whereas CRISPR comes from a simple bacterial system. Most CRISPR/Cas9 systems are constrained by its large size and a relatively complex biology. ARCUS, on the other hand is a relatively small, single component system that presents unique advantages to improve our outcomes.
What are some of the products that you have created?
Cargill is a great example to discuss here. Cargill decided to work with us on one of their most ambitious programs yet to significantly reduce saturated fatty acids in canola. With significant reductions, the final product could be labeled as saturate-free. This strategic collaboration fell within our mission of creating healthy outcomes for people.
We are also working on improving stevia. From a supply chain perspective, it is in huge demand but there are issues with breeding and cultivation practices. The majority of stevia that is consumed in the western world comes from China and there are several documented issues associated with how it is produced. . Importantly, the current stevia supply chain is highly variable and not as reliable as the industry would like. We are working with key stakeholders in the industry to try and achieve greater predictability, consistency, and reliability through deployment of a systems approach for stevia improvement
Lastly, we also initiated an effort on a program to create a zero calorie natural sweetener with watermelon. At this point, we are in talks with potential partners to ensure any product developed will be utilized by the industry and has a positive impact on people’s overall health.
How do you decide where to focus? Do food company clients ask for certain improvements?
At this stage, if we don’t focus on specific products and issues that won’t make an impact in the shortest time. We are picking the biggest problems out there and deploying 100% effort into solving those problems with our technologies. We do not pretend for a single minute that we know what consumers want and we don’t want to take bets on trait A, B, or C. What usually happens is that we identify a partner who shares our vision and philosophy. Then, we identify what is essential for the partner in their product pipeline and we work on creative ideas and approaches. We try to push the envelope with that partner and what they are looking for. Sometimes we co-invest with the partner, and in most cases the partner wants to fund the project entirely in-house. We bring our proprietary technology and workflows to the table and we make generate revenues through successful product development, milestones, and/or royalty payments.
How would you describe investor interest in the food-focused, gene-editing space?
The investment community is highly sophisticated and they have quickly learned all the nuances of genome application including the hurdles. When we talk to investors, these are highly informed investors coming to us and they are as bullish as ever on the technologies. At this point, there is a great amount of interest, especially from the perspective of the ability to meet consumer demands in a timely manner through technology. With all the information out there on lifestyle, diseases, and health people are making better different choices and this paradigm-shifting conversation is happening at the interface of food and consumers.
What are some of the biggest challenges you are facing?
The biggest challenge is access to the right kind of talent because the field has moved at such a rapid pace over the last five years that our training infrastructure and academic training is just not enough We typically spend an average of three-to-six months training our new hires and helping them see the complexities involved in a more translation-oriented work environment. This needs to change.