Food Tech Futures: What’s Next for Biotech?

Traditionally, humans have exploited biology to produce appealing foods via selective breeding of livestock and crops. Yet there remains an unmet demand for sustainably sourced, optimally nutritious foods–a demand that can only be met with biotechnology. Food biotechnology unites the best of what biotech has to offer by providing solutions for both human and planetary health, so it’s no wonder that the food sector, of all sectors of biotech, has taken off.

At Unexpected Biotech, IndieBio SF Managing Director Po Bronson sat down with 2 well-established innovators (and IndieBio alumni!) to discuss what makes biotechnology uniquely suited to satiate current and future consumers appetites.

Watch the recording or read our summary to find out:

See the future of biotech at IndieBio Demo Days!

Biotechnology removes inefficiency

Most of the energy that we invest into livestock is lost as heat, leaving only a small fraction in the meat, eggs, and dairy products that we consume. “When you use inefficient machines, you get the consequences [of inefficiencies]­: deforestation, water scarcity, loss of species, etc. All of those consequences are coming because of the middleman,” says Mattais Muchnick, CEO of NotCo. At NotCo, scientists created an algorithm that learns what combination of plants can replicate animal products, thereby removing middlemen (animals) from food production.

Similar to Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, NotCo is not inventing entirely new foods, but they are creating alternatives. The success of these companies lies in the fact that they do not ask consumers to change their tastes, but rather they ask only that consumers embrace a sustainable replacement for foods they already love. 

“To this new generation of products, plant-based cannot be the value proposition, it has to be the taste. Otherwise, we won’t ever get to the mass market,” says Muchnick.  With this in mind, NotCo produced NOTMILK, a sustainable plant-based milk alternative that delivers the rich taste and creamy texture of cow’s milk. NOTMILK is currently available on shelves and in coffee shops across the United States and South America, making it easy for consumers to make the switch to plant-based foods and support planetary health. 

Food tech products are more sustainable… and better for you?

Consumers are not only looking for products that deliver the taste and texture of traditional foods; they also demand products that provide the same, or better, nutritional value as animal products. Namely, consumers look at protein content. Protein content to date has been limited to those derived from livestock animals in order to facilitate large-scale production.

Now that we’re not limited to what you can take from a cow, a pig, a chicken, or fish, you can actually find the active component that confers some of these health benefits

Alex Lorestani, Geltor CEO

“What if we weren’t beholden to these sources of protein we have today,” asks Alex Lorestani, CEO and cofounder of Geltor, “but instead we go out and find the best proteins for the job that the consumers [need]?” In his quest for precision nutrition, Lorestani discovered that the best proteins were most often not those served up by industrially farmed animals.

For example, collagen protein is well known for its benefits to skin, hair, and gut health. “Now that we’re not limited to what you can take from a cow, a pig, a chicken, or fish, you can actually find the active component that confers some of these health benefits.” says Lorestani.

Once these bioactive compounds are identified, Geltor unites biological insight and animal-free fermentation processes to create their sustainable, functionally-optimized protein products. Removing the animal from production thus not only supports planetary health, but also increases food functionality to support human health.

What space for future innovation in food tech?

Animal-free food products are already in our homes, our grocery stores, and our favorite restaurants, in part thanks to IndieBio companies like Geltor and NotCo. In the shadows of well-established food biotech companies, what space is left for new startups? 

Just like the biotechnology that supports food products, consumer tastes are dynamic and constantly searching for what’s next. Consumers make the decision to support new products at every meal, three times a day, 365 days of the year, so a small shift in consumer behavior can have a big effect on product success. 

With consideration of consumer palettes in mind, Muchnick imparts to future entrepreneurs: “If you execute better than the rest, you will become a good contender. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a game of winner takes all.” Food is subjective and people prefer options. There’s more than one option for animal-based products, so why shouldn’t there be more than one option for the alternatives? 

“We’re in the very early phases of biology continuing to transform industries globally,” says Lorestani. “The way that your idea gets expressed and ultimately molded into an amazing company is going to change in ways that you might not be able to anticipate—so go for it!”

Read more from the IndieBio-produced event, Unexpected Biotech

Sustaining Biomaterials Growth in New York

New York is a global center of cultural and economic affairs, such as theatre, food, fashion, and international business. At Unexpected Biotech, IndieBio featured 2 founders who envision a future where biomaterials becomes yet another area for which New York is famous.

What advantages does a biomaterials startup have on the east coast? And how does one build a company that is as sustainable, successful, and long-lasting as the biomaterials they produce? Watch the recording or read our summary to find out.

See the future of biotech at IndieBio Demo Days!

Biomaterials in New York: Location, Location, Location

“The future of bio is design and consumer products… New York is leading design around the world, so [biomaterials innovation] should be located here as a conversation,” said Suzanne Lee, founder and CEO of Biofabricate. Biofabricate is a biomaterials-based consulting group, founded in New York in 2014, that works with startups, consumer brands, and investors to strengthen the global community of biomaterials innovators.

Lee elaborated on the New York location: “It made a huge amount of sense to start Biofabricate in New York because it’s that midway point between a lot of the [biotechnological] development that’s happening on the West Coast and the design focus as we look towards Europe.” New York’s location enhances the company’s ability to bridge the gap between biomaterials innovators and the consumer brand space. 

At the forefront of these biomaterials innovators is Ecovative Design. Ecovative grows mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, into objects such as leather-like textiles, compostable packaging, and food products. The company was founded in 2007 and is based out of upstate New York. 

“The region we’re in has a lot of great talent options. There’s a lot of pharmaceutical, global foundries, university systems, and–for most roles–we’ve actually found that the local talent pool is pretty amazing and undertapped,” said Ecovative Design CEO Eben Bayer. Thus, New York provides not only the geographic location for uniting design and biotechnology, but the critical mass of diverse talent required for sustained innovation.

Biomaterials Offers Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations

Despite the wide variety of talent that New York has to offer, recruiting still remains a challenging task because of the interdisciplinarity of the biomaterials space. Bayer advised that companies “see every person as a person and know that some of the best innovations in this field will be at the intersection of disciplines.” 

Mycelium-based products already lie at the intersection between biotechnology, food science, fashion design, and materials packaging. Collaboration between previously siloed disciplines encourages new innovations, creating sustainable growth both within the company and within the biomaterials community.

Lee, who entered the biomaterials space with a formal education in design, provides a perfect example of the innovation that can come from fusing a design-based background with a biotechnology focus. Up-and-coming biomaterials innovators are embracing this strategy by promoting intellectual exchange between research and design departments.  

As the lines between design and science continue to break down, Lee asserted that “design from both sides, that creative thinking with biology, is just going to be unfolding decades of exciting products that we can only begin to imagine.” 

Partnerships Make or Break Biomaterials Startups

While both the right place and the right people can strengthen the foundation of a biomaterials startup, there is no future for a company without a customer. This is where brand partnerships come in. Some companies’ technologies, such as Ecovative’s leather products, lend themselves to mass market partnerships. Other companies’ technologies are better suited for a top down entry and partnerships with luxury brands. 

As sustainably sourced materials become more and more important to the consumer, startups must carefully assess the motivation behind partnership offers from brands. Startups should be wary of brands looking to partner with sustainable materials companies only as a marketing strategy rather than a long term investment. 

To create successful partnerships, Bayer suggested that startups “understand where you’re at [as a company], find the one [brand] where you actually get a champion fit, and then really partner strongly.” At Ecovative, Bayer found this champion fit with a packaging plant manager looking to shift to more sustainable materials. Having a person of seniority who cared about the problem Ecovative was fixing allowed the partnership to persevere during the growing pains of the scaling up product development.

Recently, brands such as Hermes, Adidas, and Stella McCartney have all adopted mycelium-based leather alternatives. “When they [Hermes] embrace a new material it’s not just for one season­– they are actually investing in it for the long term. So that is a significant statement in the luxury industry: they view a technology like mycelium as a long term alternative to their existing portfolio of materials,” said Lee. Not only does this feed back into the market and encourage other brands to adopt sustainable materials, but it provides investors’ confidence in the materials as a long term investment and burgeoning marketplace.

And what does the future look like for the biomaterials space? The seeds planted by biomaterials startups are sprouting into a new generation of consumer products. Said Bayer, “the most satisfying part of this next cycle will be seeing products showing up on shelves.”

Find more insights from IndieBio’s Unexpected Biotech event

Biomaterials Startup Showcase: Algiknit

Immunology-Based Technologies in Startups: Seven Tips from Founders

The immune system is fine tuned to defend the body from foreign invaders, but when the system malfunctions it can spell disaster for a person’s health and quality of life. The panelists of IndieBio’s Biotechnology x Immunology event are using biotechnology to offer solutions to those suffering from immune dysregulation and overactivity. 

Read the top insights from our panelists below or rewatch the event below. 

Apply to be a part of the next IndieBio cohort

Meet our Panelists:

  • Alex Martinez, CEO of Intrinsic Medicine. Intrinsic Medicine is a biotech therapeutics company that is currently developing a safe, effective treatment for Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) from a bioactive, anti-inflammatory sugar found in human breast milk.
  • Trill Paullin, CEO of Free to Feed. Free to Feed is a startup that empowers mothers of food-allergic infants throughout their breastfeeding journey. The company offers consultation services as it develops a food allergen test strip product that gives mothers an “ingredient deck for the boob” and the confidence to feed themselves and their baby without worry.
  • Cody Shiriff, CEO at Serenity Bioworks. Serenity Bioworks is a biotech therapeutics company that uses insights from cellular stress pathways to develop anti-inflammatory drugs for autoimmune diseases. Currently, the company is moving into clinical trials with a compound that can treat kidney inflammation in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus patients.

The panel followed the journey of each company, revealing these 7 tips for building a startup:

1. Identify the Market Need    

Locate a problem before you start working on a solution.

AM: “I started with the market and a deep understanding of the problem itself. Then we were able to go and find a solution for it. Having that match is actually a very powerful competitive advantage.” 

CS: “There are recently approved drugs that have marginally increased efficacy and clinical response in lupus nephritis. We’re talking about 40 percent effective. We want to increase that and we believe that patients and clinicians are going to want to use a drug that’s more effective than that.”  

TP: “The research indicated that the numbers of mothers experiencing food allergic responses were expanding exponentially year over year, especially through breast milk. So 1, the research indicated that it was a problem that was continuing to expand and to grow; then 2, when I found fellow parents that were going through this as well, their pain point matched and or was worse than mine. That is what led me to believe that this is something that should be addressed, it could be addressed, and it is truly a market that is unmet.”

2. Choose your startup team wisely

Find people who can add unique value to your business.

TP: “Finding a co-founder meant finding somebody who could truly understand the problem, and so I ended up finding another woman who’s breastfed through food allergies.”

CS: “For drug development, we found building the team from San Francisco was a little easier. We were able to recruit people from Amgen or from Genentech who have previously developed drugs…those people are critical for people with a science background, like myself,to collaborate with as the company approaches the clinic.”

3. Prioritize efficient business growth

Success requires a commitment to intelligent planning and focused effort.

AM: “Part of our pattern was to find compounds eligible for 505 (b) (2) regulatory pathways so we could rapidly expedite our FDA interaction.” 

TP: “We’re direct-to-consumer so in the midst of [completing our FDA pre-submission package] we are also building out all of our customer-facing pieces: the website, the social media platforms, and navigating what is truly resonating with parents.” 

4. Choose and recruit patient populations

Balance business pragmatism with patient need.

AM: “I was identifying patient populations where the bleeding edge science really points to immune dysregulation and where there is a stagnant standard of care… My goal was to find patient populations where we could show that our drug produced clinically meaningful results within 12-week endpoints without reliance on surrogate endpoints.” 

AM: “People are asking their deepest problem in Google. You can get in front of every person who is looking for your solution and you can educate them on your clinical studies.”

5. Build strong entrepreneurial networks           

Opening lines of communication opens doors to opportunities…

…with your resources:  

AM: “Developing a great relationship with the tech transfer office is a very useful thing. Build that relationship and then once you’ve internally formulated what your screen is, just have an ongoing dialogue. Our compound was actually served up by the tech transfer office at UC San Diego.”  

…with your peers:

CS: “A lot of the network I was able to form by being in San Francisco for that four months [at IndieBio]. The person who just joined our board was somebody who I met at IndieBio.” 

…with your customer:

TP: “I continue to talk to the customer segment to fully understand the customers’ needs because I personally am no longer breastfeeding a food allergic baby.” 

 6. Remember your ‘why’ 

A successful business is driven by the mind and fueled by the heart.

TP: “There’s nothing quite like living and breathing the problem every single day to feel motivated to continue to work towards a solution for other parents.” 

AM: “I talk about ‘comparably mild’ because this is not a mild disease. I think this is an important note. I’m a patient as well. When you’re a patient, there’s no such thing as a mild disease.” 

CS: “The drugs that are currently being used are extreme. It’s cyclophosphamide, which is a chemotherapeutic. While we’re not going to deviate too much from the use of that, we want to get them off of that drug and into remission as quickly as possible.” 

7. If at first you don’t succeed…

Try, try again.

CS:  “I applied to IndieBio the first time and got rejected. I think it was because I was stuck in all the science speak and wasn’t able to properly communicate the bare essentials of what is important for an investment… I had to learn how to properly communicate and the pitch was better the second time. That’s what led to the first money.”  

TP: “Similar to Cody, I applied more than once and the first time I did not get in. If you are listening and have applied, definitely apply again and continue to iterate and improve.”

Apply to be a part of the next IndieBio cohort