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Geltor seeks to disrupt the gelatin market with potentially game-changing animal-free alternative

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By Elaine Watson+

16-Aug-2016
Last updated on 31-Aug-2016 at 02:29 GMT2016-08-31T02:29:28Z

Co-founders Alex Lorestani (left) and Nick Ouzounov (right)
Co-founders Alex Lorestani (left) and Nick Ouzounov (right)

If you think producing gelatin from a genetically engineered micro-organism in fermentation tanks doesn’t sound like something Grandma would do; hydrolyzing collagen from animal skin, bones and connective tissues on an industrial scale isn’t exactly a food marketer’s dream either, observes the CEO of Geltor (formerly Gelzen): “You’re basically dropping shards of animal waste into an acid or alkaline bath.”

And while many people don’t have a problem with munching on marshmallows containing fish or pigskin - and manufacturers would argue that gelatin is a sustainable value-added ingredient using parts of the animal we don't generally eat - there is significant demand for a vegan alternative that can precisely replicate the unique qualities of gelatin, says Alexander Lorestani, who co-founded San Francisco-based Geltor  (formerly Gelzen) with molecular biologist Nikolay Ouzounov in 2015.

“There are already vegan substitutes on the market [agar, agar, pectin, starches, gums],” said Lorestani, who is effectively programing microbes to produce collagen (from which gelatin is derived) via a fermentation process without using or harming animals.

But anyone that’s tried a gummi bear made with a gelatin substitute knows they are just not the same, they don’t have the same chemical or mechanical properties,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.

The gelatin market is worth close to $3bn

He added: “The gelatin market is worth close to $3bn; and it’s growing strongly in Asia, so if you can come up with a cost-effective alternative, there is massive potential.

“If you’re buying in bulk, the current market price for gelatin is around $8/kg, and we want to be price competitive with that, which will take time and economies of scale, but people are already paying four to five times this amount for gelatin substitutes, and we can make something that’s far superior to them.

“We have a long waiting list of folks excited to test and buy our material. Aside from people wanting alternatives for ethical or religious reasons [pork-derived gelatin is not halal or kosher, while bovine gelatin is only halal if the animals were slaughtered in a certain way], there are also concerns about animal diseases [eg. BSE] and restrictions on supplies, so the demand is definitely there.”

“People don’t want to rely on animal derived materials and there is a lot of pressure on companies to switch to plant-based alternatives. It’s not just handful of vegans asking for this.”

Alexander Lorestani, co-founder and CEO, Geltor

There are other companies manufacturing collagen for biomedical applications – including Israeli firm Collplant ,which programs tobacco plants to produce collagen that can be used for tissue repair and wound care – but Geltor claims to be the first trying to produce gelatin on an industrial scale for food and other commercial-scale applications.

$2.5m cash injection to build a recombinant protein production platform

Geltor, which recently completed a $2.5m funding round led by food and tech investors and now has eight people on its team, is now operating out of a lab with a small-scale production facility in a former Caterpillar construction equipment factory in San Leandro, added Lorestani, who studied medicine at Rutgers and bacterial pathogenesis at Princeton.

The key, according to Geltor, which is using synthetic biology techniques to engineer micro-organisms to product proteins, is being able to do it at scale.  So how does it work?

According to Lorestani: “We start with a suite of microbes that naturally produce proteins but we give them a set of instructions for making collagen [from which gelatin derives] in the form of genes. Collagen has been extensively studied, so the DNA sequences that we're using to 'program' our microbes to produce it - they are basically a set of instructions - are actually available on the web for anyone to copy and paste.

“There are companies out there that print DNA so we just order the DNA from them and they send it to us. So one of the first projects we worked on was making mastodon gelatin. Obviously mastodons no longer exist, but we know the DNA sequence, so we could use that to program our microbes to make mastodon collagen. No actual animals are used or harmed in the process.”

After a batch has been produced, the product must be purified, which does leave a byproduct, uses for which Geltor is now exploring, he said.  

"Anyone that’s tried a gummi bear made with a gelatin substitute knows they are just not the same, they don’t have the same chemical or mechanical properties," says Geltor co-founder Alex Lorestani

Process can be customized

As it’s a proprietary process, Lorestani won’t say which microbes [bacteria and yeast] Geltor is using or what’s in the feedstock or ‘broth’ (eg. what the microbes eat in the big fermenters), but says they need sugars and a source of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon. As for intellectual property, meanwhile, the process, rather than the end product, is the focus, he said.

Patenting naturally-occurring materials is not a winning strategy, so we are very much focused on patenting the process for the manufacturing, while in fermentation trade secrets are also a large factor.

“I can’t say what the microbes are, but they are all approved for the production of food in the US. We are basically programming them to build collagen for us. The process can also be customized [so Geltor could make gelatin designed for gummi bears with a specific stiffness or beer clarifying agents with a particular property].”

How would Geltor’s products be described on food labels?

Labeling could vary, given that Geltor has several products in the pipeline, but for a bio-identical product, would it just be called 'gelatin' with perhaps some clarification to explain that it is not animal-derived?

It’s not possible to give a clear answer on this right now, said co-founder Alex Lorestani, although conversations are taking place over how to regulate and describe the product. 

Scaling up the fermentation process

As for scaling up, things don’t work in an entirely linear fashion, so you can’t assume that every time you move to a fermenter double the size of the last one, the results will be predictable, he said, but once you get beyond a certain size, things do start to behave more predictably. “From 10,000 to 50,000 to 100,000 liters is very different from going from 5ml to one liter to 10 liters.

“A lot of industries use fermenters that can scale up to 100s of thousands of liters and if we’re making tons of the stuff, that’s the scale we’ll ultimately need to be on.”

So does Geltor’s process require bespoke equipment? Not necessarily, said Lorestani: “There are standard fermenters out there with some modular aspects so they can meet your needs but some of the technology we are working on might require some new hardware.”

What is gelatin?

Gelatin is a flavorless, colorless gelling and thickening agent derived from animal skin, bones and connective tissues with unique properties: it dissolves in hot water and gels when it cools (a process which is reversible), and creates a texture and bite in candies such as marshmallows, desserts, gummi bears and other candies that is very hard to replicate with plant-based alternatives.

It is manufactured on a commercial scale from pig skin, cow hide, cattle bones, fish skin, and other animal sources of collagen, which is hydrolyzed (chopped up) via acid, alkaline, or enzymes to make gelatin.

According to a June 2016 report from Grand View Research, food & beverage is the biggest market for gelatin in the US, followed by nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, photography, and personal care.

The market is projected to generate revenue growth at a CAGR of 6.7% between 2016 and 2024, says the report, which predicts the strongest volume growth in the Asia-Pacific region.

The aim is to have significant commercial quantities available within four years or so

It’s hard to make firm predictions given how young the company is, but the plan is to deliver kilograms of product to customers next summer and to be able to supply truly significant quantities such that big gelatin users could use Geltor’s product in their wares “in the next four years or so.”

As for the business model, is Geltor going to license the technology to – or partner with - a big ingredients company, or is it planning to go into the ingredients manufacturing game directly?

“Right now we’re very much interested in the development, manufacturing and delivery of our own material to food producers,” said Lorestani.

“People don’t want to rely on animal derived materials and there is a lot of pressure on companies to switch to plant-based alternatives. It’s not just handful of vegans asking for this.”

2 comments (Comments are now closed)

Bring it to UK and Europe

Halal slaughter is already banned in some European countries and is constantly under threat for the cruelty involved by animal rights pressure groups - and supportive delegates who understand the appalling "process". Any alternative to gelatin will be welcomed in Europe and UK - major markets

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Posted by Chris
22 August 2016 | 23h362016-08-22T23:36:11Z

Boundless Opportunities

This sounds extremely interesting. Once the Regulatory, Halal and Kosher status of the product can be confirmed, other groups may want to invest in the company. However, I guess the GMO status could be a hurdle for European Products.
It would be interesting if the microbes can be varied to turn out slightly different "gelatin-type products" that work even better than current gelatins in various industrial applications with improved properties and functionality.

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Posted by Stephen Mazzaro
16 August 2016 | 18h212016-08-16T18:21:55Z

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