c16 Biosciences gears up to launch fermentation-based palm oil replacement for personal care in 2023, food in 2024

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Pictured: Logging and land clearing of rainforest for the palm oil industry. Image credit: Gettyimages/rich-carey
Pictured: Logging and land clearing of rainforest for the palm oil industry. Image credit: Gettyimages/rich-carey

Related tags Palm oil Fermentation Microbial fermentation c16 Bio

Utilized in everything from lipsticks and moisturizers to baked goods and confectionery, palm oil comes with environmental and societal costs – displacing tropical forests across Asia, Latin America and West Africa, and destroying the habitats of endangered species. But is it cost-effective to try and replace it with oil-producing microbes – even very high-yielding ones – in fermentation tanks?

c16 Biosciences​ ​– a startup deploying a “super-productive​” Non-GMO oleaginous yeast strain producing 80-90% lipids by weight with a fatty acid profile “very close​” to palm oil – is gearing up to launch in the personal care market in 2023, and the food industry likely in 2024 (the firm is pursuing self-GRAS status initially and plans to submit to the FDA in due course).

‘Super-productive’ oleaginous yeast strain

To do this at scale, said CEO Shara Ticku, who co-founded c16 Bio in 2018 with David Heller, “You need a really robust microorganism that isn’t really sensitive to temperature changes or pH changes that can make large amounts of oil with the right fatty acid profile​ [sufficiently high in saturates to match palm oil] and you need flexibility on the feedstocks ​[it can consume].

“We've demonstrated its ability to grow well on glucose, sucrose, glycerol, and multiple carbon sources. We've also shown it doesn't have to grow on a super pure carbon source… our yeast is really not picky, and it can also go without being fed for a long time.”

As the oil is contained within the yeast cell walls, which must be disrupted to release it, she said: “We spent a lot of time focused on downstream processing, and my team has simplified it so that it's short and sweet and not overly complex, but we still see lots of room for innovation in in that space as well.”

‘You’ve got to find a way to get early adopters in rather than just chasing that really big end market’

The go-to-market strategy, meanwhile, must allow you to start small and find markets that will make you money before you’re at a massive scale, she said, highlighting the challenges faced by firms a few years back trying to get into the biofuels space with oils from microalgae.

“It sounds obvious, but you’ve got to choose markets where you can make money and you’ve got to find a way to get early adopters in rather than just chasing that really big end market,” ​said Ticku, who said c16 Bio’s technology is protected by seven patents “on both process and composition of matter.”

Labeling for food: TBD

Ticku – who has developed an ‘intel inside’ approach with partners in the personal care space with the ‘palmless’ brand – said it’s not yet clear exactly how c16 Bio’s oil will be labeled on food ingredients lists in the US, as it is not chemically identical to palm oil, although she stressed that “all of the fatty acids we make already exist in the human diet.

“It’s similar but not identical,” ​which also matters from an IP front because it couldn’t be patented if it were identical to palm oil, she noted.

“The different combinations of fatty acids have benefits in different applications, so when we test it in something like a Nutella alternative or a peanut butter alternative, we compare our oil versus palm oil or versus soybean oil. In the personal care space, meanwhile, some of the fatty acids that are there are really good for things like transepidermal water loss and occlusivity​ [it helps skin stay hydrated] and here our product is better than most on the market.”

'We recently completed a successful 50,000-liter fermentation'

So where is the firm now when it comes to manufacturing and scale up?

According to Ticku: “We recently completed a successful 50,000-liter fermentation, so this is not just technology in the lab anymore, this was a commercial scale production run.

“We currently work with multiple contract manufacturers at pilot scale and we have an agreement with a commercial CMO, and we're readying a facility for commercial scale production. That should be ready at the end of Q1 or Q2, 2023, and then we’ll be kicking into continuous production to support our first sales, which will happen next year.”

She added: “We have our first queue of customers in the beauty and personal care space, which will launch in 2023.”

$24m funding to date

To date, c16 Bio has raised $24m, most recently raising a $20m series A round in 2020, said Ticku, who is now raising for the next round as it scales up.

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