Tech startups to watch

Looking to makes waves in the food industry: three tech start-ups to watch

Every year, C&EN (Chemical & Engineering News, the website/journal of the American Chemical Society) highlights 10 start-ups developing potentially world-changing chemistry innovations. And while 2020 has felt unlike any other year, the drive of science-based entrepreneurs to bring technologies that benefit people, the environment, and the economy to market hasn’t changed.

The start-ups profiled this year by C&EN illustrate the breadth of solutions that chemistry-based innovators can deliver. They’ve found new ways to discover drugs, produce sustainable food and materials, harness quantum computing, and even mimic the human nose.

Here are three of the ten whose work is relevant to the food industry.

Aryballe: Identifying smells with an inexpensive handheld device

Scientists have long sought to replicate the remarkable ability of the human nose with dispassionate equipment. But as any master perfumer can tell you, such efforts have a long way to go.

The French start-up Aryballe reckons it is at least narrowing the performance gap with its electronic nose, which combines biochemical sensors, advanced optics, and machine learning to collect and identify thousands of odors.

Nonhuman identification of smells today is largely the province of systems based on gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Although accurate, they feature bulky equipment, and the associated data analysis can be laborious and time consuming. Like panels of human tasters and smellers, they can also be expensive.

“Aryballe’s technology retains the accuracy of such big machines but can be used in a handheld device and potentially something the size of a watch and is much cheaper,” CEO Sam Guilaumé says.

Aryballe’s sensor, about the size of a paper clip, features peptides grafted onto a 50 mm2 silicon chip. Mimicking the olfactory sensors of the human nose, the peptides react with volatile organic compounds emitted from, say, a sample of coffee or a vial of perfume.

During the reaction, which is transient, the peptides absorb some light. These changes in the light absorbance of the peptides are measured by an array of optical sensors. The optical sensor readings of the changes in light on the surfaces of the peptides are then uploaded to Aryballe’s server, where they are matched with the patterns of known smells.

The firm has raised about $20-million from investors as diverse as International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) and the carmaker Hyundai Motor.

Initial applications for a customer like IFF will be to identify fragrances or provide, for example, a quick pass or fail to incoming raw materials. For food and beverage firms, Aryballe’s technology can characterise and measure odours like the smell of coffee.


Culture Biosciences: Helping biotech firms screen microbes for large-scale production

These days, researchers at firms small and large want to engineer bacteria, fungi, yeast, or mammalian cells to make molecules for drugs, materials, food, and crop protection.

Engineers, Will Patrick and Matt Ball, based in San Francisco, are friends who share a passion for the potential of biomanufacturing to improve the environment and human health. They also yearn to solve problems.

What they learned is that companies know how to craft an organism that can produce a useful molecule, but their main sticking point is fine-tuning the organism and developing a manufacturing process that allows the organism to thrive and the firms to make money.

But getting an organism or cell ready for industrial manufacturing requires a well-stocked lab with many fermentation bioreactors, people to run them, and the expertise to manage and analyze buckets of data. Creating that testing infrastructure is difficult, time consuming, and expensive.

“That’s not where the attention should be,” Patrick says. “Instead, companies should be working on what products will generate a huge impact on the world and generate revenue.”

“We saw a business opportunity to make it convenient and simple” to bridge the manufacturing gap, Patrick says. In 2016, Patrick and Ball founded Culture Biosciences to speed companies’ time to commercialisation.

Culture BioSciences:

Protera: Next-generation ingredient development

Protera started with an ambitious goal: use artificial intelligence to rationally design functional enzymes and other proteins; to create safe, sustainable, and affordable protein-based food ingredients that address today’s ethical, environmental, and consumer health challenges.

Leonardo Álvarez and Francia Navarrete had seen computational methods used to validate and interpret results in the biotech world, such as Insilico Medicine’s drug-candidate finder, and they wondered if they could use AI earlier in product development.

They founded Protera in 2015 in Chile, where they both grew up and went to school. In 2017, the company joined the IndieBio accelerator in San Francisco. In June of this year, Protera received $5.6 million in a series A investment round led by Sofinnova Partners. As part of that deal, Protera is scaling up operations with partners in France. The business office will remain in Silicon Valley, while R&D is in Chile.

San Francisco’s foodie culture inspired their first product, Protera Sense, an enzyme that can convert unsaturated fats into saturated fats, which have higher melting points — for example, turning sunflower oil into a buttery spread.

Protera’s enzyme lets food makers create textures they would normally get from palm oil or trans fats, two things that eco- and health-conscious consumers are becoming less willing to tolerate. “The next-generation food consumers are deeply involved with the ingredients that the products they’re eating contain. They want to know that these ingredients are healthy, sustainable, and clean label,” Álvarez says.

Protera’s next product, which is going into pilot-scale fermentation now, is a thermally stable antifungal called Protera Guard. The company is scaling up production of the protein and working with French bakeries to test it. Early results suggest the protein preservative can extend the shelf life of breads by up to 45 days.


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