Sugarlogix is a biotech startup based in Berkeley, CA attempting to distill some of the most prized nutritional qualities of human breast milk from simple table sugar. The company is looking to improve infant formula with a particular milk sugar that has no flavor, but enhances the immune system, promotes gut health, and reduces inflammation. Sugarlogix co-founder and CEO Kulika Chomvong pitched the company at FoodBytes! Austin last month and won the People’s Choice award. Before pitching at FoodBytes!, Sugarlogix was part of biotech accelerator IndieBio’s Spring 2017 cohort.
We caught up with Chomvong to learn more about Sugarlogix’s product and how and when it will head to market.
What is your product and how did you discover it?
The types of sugar we are working with are long chain sugars. We call them oligosaccharides and they look more like fibers. Our team met working on bio-energy. We’ve known one another for seven years and we started working together turning biomass into bioethanol. When my cofounder and I graduated [from UC Berkeley], we were both into food and thought there might be something we could do with the technology in our hands — using it for ingredients in a food tech application.
Is there a structural or flavor benefit to using it or is it purely nutraceutical?
It tastes neutral to semi-sweet, but we don’t want to confuse people by calling it semi-sweet. It is really just there for the function. The type of sugars that we are working with are unique to human breast milk and we recreate it, not using breast milk as a starting point, but instead starting with simple sugar found as a by-product from dairy processors or simple sugars like glucose. Our technology is capable of turning those simple sugars into something that is unique to human breast milk and we call them human milk oligosaccharides or human milk sugars.
And your customer is any food manufacturer that wants to add this to their product for the nutritional benefit?
Exactly. Our business model is selling directly to businesses who are using it in early life nutrition products, and infant formula is probably our most predominant area. If you look on the shelf today, the majority of the infant formulas substitute another carbohydrate type that does not exist in breast milk, which is a lot easier. We now have the technology to synthesize it sustainably from simple sugar. In that market, we want to be offering it to early-life nutrition manufacturers to help bridge the gap between what naturally exists in breast milk from breastfeeding. We know that breastfeeding is not always an option so we want to make the formula more similar to what nature has to offer.
Sugar alcohols and sugar derivatives have had mixed effects in terms of tolerance. What is the difference between prebiotics that are widely tolerated and prebiotics that aren’t, and how do you know that yours is?
With any kind of prebiotic, there is an upper limit as to how much you should be consuming in a day. It is actually the same case with table sugar or really any food that we eat. I think one key point that makes me feel good about this product is because it is something that exists in nature and is in breast milk. Especially for our first application in early life nutrition, we’ve had five to ten years of an extraordinary amount of research around how gut health is so important in both babies and adults. There are multiple solutions working toward the same target, but we believe that the one that makes the most sense is the one that exists naturally – and maybe there are some parts that we don’t quite understand, but as long as we stick to something that has been made by evolution, we think we’re on the safer side.
How do you anticipate the benefit and the product itself will appear on a label?
For early life nutrition, it’s quite intuitive. I think we could say ‘this product contains human milk sugar that exists in breast milk and is the closest we can possibly be to what nature has to offer.’ For adult products, this is where FoodBytes! has given us a lot of really good feedback. We want to put forth that this is the first time that adults can enjoy the medicinal benefits that exist in breast milk and it hasn’t been done before. FoodBytes! has traditionally been a bit more consumer-focused and that is something we were looking for.
What does the next year look like?
We will be scaling up our production — think of it as home-brewing beer at home, versus a brewing tank in a brewery. We have very exciting shipments coming up and a few customers lined up. We will be mostly testing with customers next year and then prepping for 2019 production and shipment. We are still in the middle of fundraising for our seed round so that is another hurdle we need to get over to do all the fun things we’ve lined up for next year.
(Sugarlogix fits into AgFunder’s Innovative Food category.)
Photo: Kassie Borreson