Danone and AI-powered startup Brightseed join forces to explore the ‘dark matter of nutrition’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture credit: United Soybean Board
Picture credit: United Soybean Board

Related tags Brightseed Danone North America Soy Soy isoflavones Soy protein

Danone North America has teamed up with Brightseed – a San Francisco-based startup using AI to analyze hundreds of thousands of phytonutrients for potential health benefits – to probe key plant sources to identify “previously unknown health and nutrition benefits,” beginning with soy.

In the multi-phase partnership, Danone – which owns plant-based brands including Silk and Alpro - is seeking to get a deeper understanding of the phytonutrients present in raw soy, and determine whether they are linked to health benefits “previously unlinked to soy​,” say execs at Brightseed, which was launched by three former Hampton Creek employees in 2017 (Sofia Elizondo, Lee Chae, and Jim Flatt).

In future, this might lead to products – particularly those that are already based on soy – being fortified with meaningful levels of these phytonutrients, said co-founder and COO Sofia Elizondo.

‘60% of FDA-approved drugs are derived from natural products including plants, algae and bacteria’

On the face of it, she acknowledged, soy is one of the most studied plants on the planet, with clinical research exploring everything from the relationship between soy protein and lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol; to the effects of soy isoflavones such as genistein and daidzein on cardio and bone health.

In reality, however, we’ve barely even scratched the surface, she argued, noting that we tend to know a lot about proteins, oils and fats, and carbs in high-profile crops like soy, but far less about the small molecules/bioactive phytonutrients.

“Over 99% of phytonutrients in the plant kingdom are not known to science, both exotic plants but also well-known plants such as soy,” ​she told FoodNavigator-USA.

“60% of FDA-approved drugs are derived from natural products including plants, algae and bacteria. So we know these compounds are extremely beneficial for our bodies, but we haven’t had the tools to explore them. We don’t have a way to look into molecules at scale, and that keeps us in the dark, in fact academics call this the dark matter of nutrition.

We need to be able to illuminate this dark matter of nutrition in order to be able to traverse it.”

‘Over 99% of phytonutrients in the plant kingdom are not known to science’

She added: “Fewer than 1% of small molecules in plants have been mapped.​ They exist in natural product libraries that ingredient and pharma companies have but they are in the range of tens of thousands of compounds, whereas we have elucidated 300,000 plant compounds and we’re on track to reach a million by the end of the year.

“This is the first step to identify how they might be beneficial to health and how do we make sure we include them in our diet.”

‘We need to be able to illuminate this dark matter of nutrition’

But what does Brightseed mean by ‘elucidate’ in this case?

“That’s where AI comes in,” ​explained Elizondo. “Traditionally,​ the only way to really understand all the molecules in plants was to physically take the plant apart. What we do that leapfrogs that process is to digitize the search.

“Our AI and machine learning algorithms predict the likelihood that plants will have certain natural compounds and then we predict the likelihood that these compounds are likely to have health benefits, and then we validate that with physical and clinical tests. So it’s like doing a Google search instead of an old yellow pages search.

“We’re benefiting from decades of biomedical research on human health targets and the kinds of molecules that regulate those; it’s training data for our machine learning models so we can run these patterns against our growing proprietary library of plant compounds that we’re generating in-house.”


Brightseed​ – which has raised $25m from investors including Horizons Ventures, Seed2Growth Ventures, and CGC Ventures – is on a mission to “illuminate the dark matter of nutrition in order to be able to traverse it.”

‘It’s like doing a Google search instead of an old Yellow Pages search’

Brightseed – which is working with several undisclosed partners ranging from major CPG companies to health research organizations, agricultural companies, and ingredients suppliers – can either home in on a particular plant, or can screen by compound, or by health benefit (eg. LDL cholesterol reduction, metabolic health, cognitive function).

Proof of concept: Metabolic health ingredient

Once it has identified fruitful targets, it can then work with partners such as Danone using more traditional analytical methods and clinical trials to validate its computational work, said Elizondo, who noted that Brightseed had demonstrated the potential of its platform by identifying a compound in black peppercorns that could deliver metabolic health benefits, and is now attempting to validate this via clinical trials.

She added: “We’re well on our way to making a functional ingredient that will be available to partners.”

Elizondo is remaining fairly tight-lipped about the ingredient right now, but a patent application​ published in December 2019 suggested that it could potentially address the “underlying pathogenesis of metabolic disorders such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis and type II diabetes mellitus.”

Brightseed’s artificial intelligence technology gives us deep insight into the plant kingdom, finds nutrients that we know are important for promoting health, and accelerates the validation of these findings."

Takoua Debeche, SVP Research & Innovation, Danone North America

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