An Interview with Francia Navarrete Utreras of GEA Enzymes

Liquid Dark Chocolate Is Now a Reality.

Photo: Francia (center) and the GEA Enzymes team.

GEA Enzymes engineers designer enzymes. Their first application is in food, with enzymes which reduce saturated fat levels while maintaining consistent aroma, taste, and feel. This makes it possible for a substance like dark chocolate to obtain that rich, liquid consistency that so many food companies want for their products. We asked Francia Utreras a few questions about the GEA:

Tell me about your background, how did you get interested in the biotech space?

My background is in biotechnology engineering. Our team started the company in Chile about 18 months ago. We decided to start GEA Enzymes because the three of us are incredibly passionate about nature’s architecture, and how we could adopt the same strategy that has successfully created all living organisms to solve world class problems.

What problem are you working to solve with your company, GEA Enzymes?

The classical protein discovery process is based on trial and error, taking a long time and many resources. Big companies have automated the process with robots, but it’s still slow and expensive with no rationale behind it. Due to this, we created MADI™, an artificial intelligence that allows us to create proteins for any desired industrial application.

To prove MADI™’s skills, we decided to start with a very challenging market, the saturated fats industry. Saturated fats are very dangerous for human health, because they can induce obesity and heart stroke. Due to this, our first designer proteins have the ability to take saturated fats and turn them into unsaturated fats. By applying this technology, we can create healthier and better quality food products.

This has huge applications in the chocolate, dairy, and vegetable fats industries, so we are working with large multinational companies in these fields. We know that this is just the beginning, because by using MADI™ we are exploring solutions beyond the food industry.

If you could only pick one thing to validate your reason for forming a startup, what would it be? In other words, what would be the single biggest indicator to you that you are doing the right thing?

Keeping passion alive. That’s the reason why we decided to move far away from our homes, work day and night including Sundays and holidays, and accept everything that entails being entrepreneurs. We’ve learned you need to sacrifice many things, put your personal life after your company, and even not get paid sometimes. Keeping this rhythm for too long might be the main reason most startups fail. If people don’t believe in what they are doing, it is easy to get lost in the journey and all the sacrifices it requires.

How do you think success can change your industry?

Our first approach to manage unsolved problems of the industry is a set of enzymes able to turn saturated fats into unsaturated fats. This will allow an increase in the nutritional value of oils and butter. In other words we could achieve the same lipid profile of the most sophisticated plantation with more efficient grow cultures.

Any big lessons learned transitioning to startup entrepreneurship?

Nobody else knows the potential of your business more than you. People can give you feedback, and you’ve got to be mature enough to realize if those opinions might work for you or drive your business to its death.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far?

As a scientist, is it hard to understand why you are not able to close deals if the science you’re working with is so cool. As entrepreneurs we painfully learned the transition between science and business, improving the art of closing deals. To sell science to multinational companies was a real challenge.

What are the big goals and milestones you’re looking to hit in the short term? Long term?

In the short term we want to raise our seed round to establish ourselves in the US, grow the team, and run in parallel all the projects we are working on. I see for the future GEA diversified in fields including Food, Pharma, Healthcare, and Agriculture — all handled by the power of proteins.

Learn more about GEA Enzymes by watching them pitch on IndieBio Demo Day Feb. 9th! Register for the event or LiveStream here!

Be Part of the Revolution!

Next program starts Winter 2017. Early applications due July 30th!