French start-up Alkion BioInnovations develops and produces three types of ingredients for food manufacturers: natural intense sweeteners, flavours and plant-based proteins with a production process that involves hydroponics and 'robotised' (or connected) bioreactors.
“It’s a patented process of in vitro plant tissue cultures in bioreactors,” CEO and president of the company Sarah-Meryll Buet told FoodNavigator. “After obtaining stable callus we cultivate specific plant organs – often the leaf – to be able to produce a very high quantity of compounds of interest with a genes biostimulation. Finally, we purify them if needed.”
The company is focussing its technology on high-value ingredients that have scale-up issues.
Its sweetener portfolio currently includes the sweet proteins mabinlin, thaumatin, brazzein and pentadin as well as stevia, while its flavour range includes vanillin, saffron, nootkatone and valencene. Duckweed (Lemna) features in its plant protein portfolio.
A 'unique' commitment to biodiversity
According to Buet, what sets it apart from its competitors in biotech is the fact it never uses GMO in the production process, as well as its commitment to be compliant with the Nagoya Protocol, something the CEO claims is “unique” in the industry.
The Nagoya Protocol is an international agreement ratified by 114 countries, including the European Union. It aims to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
“We pay some royalties [...] which protects the wonderful genetic resources we are using,” Buet said.
'A real advantage over our competitors in fermentation'
According to the CEO, Alkion BioInnovation's process differs to the methods being used by suppliers to scale up high-value, low-quantity molecules.
Cargill and DSM, for instance, use microbial fermentation to produce stevia-based sweeteners. This involves using a genetically modified yeast to produce the best-tasting Rebaudioside (Reb) M and Reb D molecules contained in the leaf.
Alkion BioInnovations was born out of Alkion BioPharma, a French start-up that developed and used the same technology for cosmetic applications.
Following the acquisition of Alkion BioPharma by German chemical company Evonik in 2016, Alkion BioInnovations was founded in 2017.
It has the rights for all applications except cosmetics and food supplements and has no connections to Evonik. In addition to the ingredients mentioned above, Alkion BioInnovations also produces essential oils and biopesticides.
“Our compounds are natural as the plant produces it alone in comparison to other methods where the process ‘is caused by a human’ who has modified nature to be able to produce the compounds. There is no chance [you would] see in nature one of these microorganisms able to produce an exogenous compound,” said Buet. “Our technology enables to massively amplify what nature can do with higher yields.”
“Our ingredients can be labelled organic in the US which is a real advantage [over] our competitors in fermentation. In the EU, the law is evolving and soil-free culture won't be organic anymore in 2021 but they still are for the moment,” she added.
Sweet proteins look to be the best alternative to sugar
Out of all the ingredients in its portfolio, the start-up expects to see most demand for its sweet proteins.
“They are easily metabolised by the body and do not alter the microbiome [so] sweet proteins are the healthiest sweeteners. They look to be the best alternative to sugar,” said Buet.
“Sugar reduction has also become one of the main topics for the food industries. The beverage industry expects a phenomenal increase of sweeteners consumption in the next 10 years [and] natural ones are the most actively sought."
Some of Alkion BioInnovations’ most advanced products in its portfolio are also sweeteners.
Fundraising and scale-up
Five people currently work on Alkion BioInnovations food portfolio and, so far, the biggest challenge has been overcoming scientific hurdles.
“In R&D, our big challenge has been to extrapolate scientific data from model plants to exotic species,” Buet said.
All of Alkion BioInnovations’ food ingredients are currently at the proof-of-concept stage and are not on the market yet but it aims to produce ten tons of the ingredients a year in its first industrialisation phase.
Its next challenge is, therefore, commercial scale-up. It is currently aiming to raise €1.5 million to optimise proof of concept in food and other applications (it is also working on medical marijuana, for instance) and build a prototype bioreactor and pilot biorefinery.
It then hopes to raise €10m in milestones with venture capitalists, corporates and family office investments.
However, the company is already working with food manufacturers on specific ingredients. “Often food companies come to us with their demand on a natural food additive and sign an R&D contract,” said Buet.
Support from the EU
The start-up received support from EIT Food, a European Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) that is part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT).
EIT Food selected Alkion BioInnovations as one of its RisingFoodStars, its ‘club’ of promising mature start-ups and early scale-ups working in the agrifood space.
Buet said EIT Food was “very helpful” and allowed it to meet finance and business partners as well as getting international collaborative projects off the ground.
“It is a great European network committed to building a stronger food ecosystem and bring solutions to the main challenges the food industry is facing.”