Jellatech – which emerged from stealth mode in November 2020 – was founded in June 2020 by Danish entrepreneur Stephanie Michelsen (CEO - based in Raleigh, NC), and Kylie van Deinsen-Hesp (head of science - based in The Netherlands), who have not yet been able to meet in person thanks to COVID-19.
One of a new wave of startups in the cell-based (a.k.a. cell-cultured, cultivated) protein arena, Jellatech is growing animal and human cells that produce collagen – the most abundant protein in most animals – an approach its founders claim lacks some of the economic challenges associated with cell-based meat, and has some advantages over microbial fermentation.
With cell-based meat, “the cells are the product,” points out van Deinsen-Hesp, which to be commercially viable, requires the mass proliferation of cells, and a lot of (currently rather pricey) growth media. You then have additional challenges of trying to manage multiple cell types to create products with the taste and texture of meat (fat, muscle, connective tissue etc).
At Jellatech, as with cell-cultured milk startups such as TurtleTree Labs and BIOMILQ, however, the cells are not themselves the product, but are instead producing the product (ie. collagen), and can do so on a continuous basis, provided they are properly fed and kept happy, she claims.
“We envision a continuous production and purification process [the cells produce a mixture of collagens and other structural proteins], so you just grow the cells to a certain density, and then harvest collagen continually from the cells.”
'Why reinvent something when you can take something that already makes exactly what you want?'
But wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient to produce collagen via microbial fermentation (inserting DNA sequences into bacteria that instruct it to produce target proteins), an approach pioneered by San Leandro-based Geltor?
“Animal cells are more expensive to maintain and slower to grow than microbes,” acknowledges van Deinsen-Hesp.
“But they are also very good at making complex proteins that form complexes with each other, like, for example, collagen, and this complexity is not easy to engineer into a microbe [although Geltor's platform is capable of producing multiple collagen proteins with film forming and gelling properties, including gelatin, which has broad functionality; and Fibrogen demonstrated some years ago that you can produce collagen that is structurally and functionally equivalent to animal collagen via microbial fermentation].
“Why reinvent something when you can take something that already makes exactly what you want? With a cell-based approach we can really substitute animal-based collagen and create a truly functional animal-free collagen.”
'We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with potential partners and customers’
Right now, the company is in the R&D phase, but the plan is to get to a commercial grade product in 18 months, at which point Jellatech can get samples out to potential partners for testing.
As for the business model, it might make sense down the line to develop CPG products for the cosmetics market, but Jellatech is a b2b company, says Michelsen, who secured seed funding from Ryan Bethencourt’s micro venture capital fund Sustainable Food Ventures and Big Idea Ventures, and is currently raising additional funds.
“We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with potential partners and customers. Beyond sustainability and religious and ethical questions [about making collagen proteins from slaughtered animals], there are also questions about safety and reliability, having a consistent supply.”
While media coverage of Jellatech has focused on gelatin – a flavorless, colorless, gelling and thickening agent derived from collagen that dissolves in hot water and gels when it cools – the platform is capable of producing a variety of collagen proteins, says van Deinsen-Hesp.
“Gelatin is the most difficult one to make profitable as it has the lowest price premium [eg. compared with bioactive collagen peptides used in functional foods, beverages, supplements and beauty products], but above collagen peptides you have native collagen [undenatured or non-hydrolyzed type II collagen].
“We’ve spoken to a number of potential partners and they are mindblown by the idea that we can make collagen that has all of its functional properties, that doesn’t come from [slaughtered] animals.”
Regulatory path forward
From a regulatory perspective, Jellatech is consulting food law experts and Michelsen says it might not have to go through the same regulatory framework as cell-cultured meat (currently being developed with the FDA and the USDA) for its ingestible collagen, given that the animal cells are not the product, which means a GRAS determination might be appropriate if its products are identical to collagen products already in the market.
Right now, says Michelsen, it’s a case of spinning a lot of plates at once, with lots of things running in parallel, from regulatory conversations to fundraising, to cell line development, and bioreactor design and process optimization.
“Kylie is working on developing our own cell lines that haven’t been continuously cultured before, and we’re looking at optimal bioreactor design, as we’re using adherent cell culture [where cells grow as monolayers on a substrate, as opposed to suspension culture, where cells free-float in the culture medium].”