Like Perfect Day – which makes ‘animal-free’ dairy proteins – Geltor deploys synthetic biology to engineer microbes to produce collagen (which is currently extracted from animal skin, bones, and connective tissue) via a fermentation process.
The San Leandro-based startup – which launched its first products in the topical skincare category - plans to launch animal-free collagen for the food and nutrition market this summer, said VP business development Scott Fabro, one of three new hires (along with Alex Patist (ex-Cargill, Bolt Threads) as VP operations; and biotech specialist Michele Champagne as VP commercialization and regulatory affairs).
“Collagen is one of the fastest growing ingredients in the functional food and beverage space and our vegan collagen will deliver functional benefits that will be backed by clinical studies [the results of] which we’ll be announcing early next year; it’s not a commodity ingredient.”
‘We are already engaged with several dozen customers’
While the functional benefits will be key to the ingredient’s appeal, its ‘animal-free’ credentials are also attractive to food and nutrition brands, many of whom are looking to make vegan claims for environmental, ethical, or religious reasons (pork-derived collagen is not halal or kosher, while bovine collagen is only halal if the animals were slaughtered in a certain way), said Fabro.
“We are already engaged with several dozen customers, and the interest level is extremely high," added Fabro, who said Geltor planned to submit its GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) determination to the FDA.
"Vegan collagen is for everyone. There’s no dietary restriction, no religious restrictions, and it’s an opportunity for customers to differentiate themselves in the market; we’ve had interest from companies interested in adding it to everything from beverages to baked goods to gummies.”
He added: “We are bringing this particular product to market ourselves. But we may engage with various strategic partners globally who can get it to customers more efficiently, where it is appropriate to do so.”
Ingredients as a Service: Customized proteins with tailored nutritional and functional properties
Separately, he said, Geltor is also having conversations with multiple players in the food and nutrition space looking to launch products featuring customized proteins with tailored nutritional and functional properties through its Ingredients as a Service platform.
The IAAS platform utilizes Geltor’s technology to “design unique molecules with tailored nutritional and functional properties such as texture and amino acid profiles,” enabling partners to go from concept to launch “in as little as 12 months,” claimed Fabro.
“One of the key attractions to me [about Geltor] apart from the opportunity to work for a company using fermentation as a sustainable production platform for specialty proteins was the speed with which they can take an ingredient to full scale commercialization.
“12 months is light speed for this kind of thing,” claimed Fabro - who has held senior roles at Evolva, Cargill, Sweet Harvest Foods, Kerry, and ACH Foods.
'We want to establish Geltor as the specialty protein partner of choice'
He added: “Maybe a b2b supplier of sweeteners has a special sweetening protein that they wish to take to market [a sweetener found in a certain plant that could be more efficiently produced at a commercial scale via microbial fermentation, for example]. Or maybe there’s a CPG company that comes to us and wants an ingredient with specific functionality to solve a specific consumer issue.
“So we’re not only working on collagen. We want to establish Geltor as the specialty protein partner of choice; we’re not a commodity protein supplier.”
The GMO factor
Asked whether the ‘GMO factor’ puts any potential customers off (Geltor uses synthetic biology to engineer bacteria to produce target proteins, although its final products are not GMOs), he noted that there are compelling ethical and environmental arguments for making animal proteins without raising or slaughtering animals.
Attitudes towards the technology had also changed “quite dramatically” in recent years, claimed Fabro, who dealt with some messaging issues around engineered microbes when he worked at Cargill and Evolva on producing stevia sweeteners via microbial fermentation. "Customers just continue to be more and more aware of the benefits of fermentation to produce hard to get ingredients."
Traditionally, collagen is sourced from animal skin, bones, and connective tissue, while collagen peptides are produced through the enzymatic hydrolysis of collagen.
Geltor - by contrast - starts with a suite of microbes that naturally produce proteins but then inserts DNA sequences - basically a set of instructions - that effectively 'program' those microbes (in this case, bacteria) to produce collagen proteins.
The company – which raised $91.3m in a Series B round last year - has filed multiple patents covering its use of machine learning and modified bacteria to produce collagen proteins and is continuing to grow its IP portfolio, which has been very important for partners, says co-founder Alexander Lorestani.
While a flurry of startups have entered the microbial fermentation space in recent years using yeast, fungi and bacteria to produce everything from milk to egg proteins, Geltor has impressed potential partners with the "pace at which we can move," Lorestani told us last year.
"Between the Series A and Series B, we've been able to take our fermentation platform up 100 times in scale, so we're at full commercial scale, which puts us into a pretty select group of biotech companies."