Using a proprietary technique called ‘facilitated expression’ that does not involve genetic engineering, Noblegen has been able to coax the micro-organism – “a protist that could also be classified as an algae” – into producing everything from cost-effective palm oil replacements, high-oleic cooking oils and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, to complete proteins with all nine essential amino acids, co-founder Dr Andressa Lacerda told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We can do this at volumes and prices that will make sense to large CPG companies; this isn’t about making niche ingredients for niche markets.
“It’s unfortunate what happened with TerraVia – [an algae fueled company that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection but has just been acquired by Corbion] – but investors and CPG companies are not scarred by that, they understand that there was a lot of pivoting there, and many of them believe that microorganisms are the future of nutrition.”
She added: “Our micro-organism is like a little cellular biofactory capable of producing multiple high value ingredients in one process with no waste stream. At the end of the fermentation [the organism is fed sugars and other “low-cost” ingredients] we separate out the individual components using a mechanical process - without chemicals or enzymes – and the remaining fermentation broth is used in the mining industry, so there is no waste.”
We’re able to drive animal and plant compounds from this organism
Unlike some other companies, which stress an organism to make it grow a particular high-value component such as DHA (the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid) in high quantities, but then the rest of the biomass is waste, multiple high-value products will come out of a production run at Noblegen, she said.
“So you could have granola bars or cookies [which might contain protein, fats, and long chain omega-3 fatty acids, for example] where 40% of the product could be made with our products.”
What’s particularly exciting about the organism is that it “has the metabolic capacity of both animals and plants, so we’re able to drive animal and plant compounds from this organism,” she said.
“So our replacement for palm oil works exactly like palm oil, it’s just from a different source, so it’s a drop in replacement, not a new fat people will have to get used to.
“There are other companies using this organism to make [the soluble fiber] beta-glucan for example, but the way we utilize it is very different. With our facilitated expression technique we are able to choose which metabolic pathway the organism will take, how much protein it will make, how much oil it will make, plus we carefully control the production parameters, what we feed it, and so on, to steer it in the direction we want it to go.”
Noblegen was founded in 2013 (when it went by the name Noble Tech) by Adam Noble, the highest awarded youth scientist in Canadian history, who was still in high school when he and his science partner discovered that a single-celled micro-organism called Euglena can be ‘tricked’ into absorbing nanosilver and other pollutants from freshwater. The discovery helped the pair win a Canada-Wide Science Fair gold medal and a Manning Young Canadian Innovation Award. The following year, Noble created a prototype Euglena-based wastewater treatment system that recovers nanosilver for reuse.
Naturally, the organism would produce a high level of beta-glucan, for example, she said, “but we can decrease the amount of beta-glucan and increase the oils and proteins.
“We can also fine tune the types of oils and proteins it can produce, so we can pick a certain fatty acid profile, or manipulate the amino acid profile, or create EPA and DHA [whereas other algae companies might just focus on DHA, for example]. We’re not sacrificing ingredient to optimize another one, all the ingredients are optimized. So it’s high growth and high yield.”
So when might these ingredients come to market, and what’s their regulatory status?
“We’re expecting that there could be products on the shelf containing our ingredients within 12 months,” said Dr Lacerda, who says the company is in talks with a variety of potential partners, both ingredients suppliers, and CPG companies.
From a regulatory perspective, the oils will be substantially equivalent to various existing oils already on the market, while studies are in progress on the proteins, added Dr Lacerda, who said the company is preparing GRAS determinations for all of the ingredients.
“We’ve been consulting with the FDA and we don’t anticipate any issues.”
Consumers are often surprised to learn that scores of food ingredients are already produced via microbial fermentation, from selected vitamins, colors, flavors and enzymes, to meat analogs such as Quorn.
Production facilities and financing
Noblegen – which was originally launched in 2013 by its then teenage founder Adam Noble as a waste water treatment business (Noble discovered that Euglena could be ‘ticked’ into absorbing pollutants from water) – currently operates from a facility in Peterborough, Ontario (just outside of Toronto), that can produce 2,000 metric tons/year of biomass.
However, it has the ability to expand production to five times that level, said Dr Lacerda. “We have a lot of room to expand where we are, and we’re also very excited about being part of the Trent Research and Innovation Park at Trent University [a yet-to-be-constructed green tech and research park].”
The company, which raised CAD$9.5m in its Series A round in early 2016, is currently seeking to raise around CAD$40m in its Series B round to expand its facilities and hire more staff, she said. “We’re growing very fast.”