Editor's spotlight: Startup Focus

Pioneering scientists create designer prebiotics to disrupt the microbiome health space

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Manjurul
Getty | Manjurul

Related tags microbiome Gut health

A team of top scientists leading the way in designer prebiotics has been selected as one of the most pioneering startups in the microbiome health industry.

After winning one of the top three spots in NutraIngredients’ Probiota Pioneers competition, the co-founders behind BCD Bioscience, in California, will present their startup venture to hundreds of industry experts at Probiota 2020 in Dublin next month. 

The accomplished team of co-founders include three University of California, Davis (UC Davis) professors, Carlito Lebrilla, David Mills and Bruce German, who have world-renowned experience in carbohydrate chemistry, microbiology and food science and recent UC Davis PhD Matthew Amicucci.

BCD - Better Carbohydrate Design – was chosen as winner of the Pioneers competition due to its great breadth of potential to disrupt the food and drink, supplements and pharma markets.

According to Dr. Amicucci, roughly 20 years ago, Lebrilla, Mills and German began establishing themselves as pioneers in the field of characterizing and determining carbohydrate structures with their work on human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) and their impact on the infant microbiome. 

“I joined these efforts in 2012.  In 2014, we began applying our learnings and the tools we had developed over the years to plant-based fibre.  This was the start of what eventually became BCD.”

The scientists have discovered a way to catalogue the broadly untapped world of natural carbohydrate structures (more than 1,500 materials analysed to date) to efficiently create and commercialise novel prebiotics, synbiotics and immuno-modulatory therapies for human and animal health.

Speaking to NutraIngredients ahead of his presentation at the event on February 10th-12th, Amicucci says: “We are taking nature – using natural fibres – and breaking them down into different oligosaccharide structures that are not found abundantly in nature. We feel like we are leading the way in designing better carbohydrates.”

Amicucci met German, Lebrilla and Mills, while studying for his Bachelors in food science and PHD in chemistry and they undertook a project looking into what happens to an infant's microbiome when they transition from breast milk to solid foods.

“One of the first things we realised was that there was almost no work in this area, especially when it came to what types of carbohydrates exist in different foods,” ​explains Amicucci, “No-one talks about the molecular structure of fibre.”

It was then that the scientists started to develop methods to characterise the different fibres and see how they regulate the microbiome.

Most prebiotics are galacto or fructo oligosaccharides, the doctor explains, but they discovered a way to create oligosaccharides from any natural fibre

Matt and Corey with Oligosaccharide Sample
Corey Vierra and Dr Matt Amicucci in the lab

(e.g. derived from plants, bacteria, yeast, etc.).

“There are not a lot of prebiotics on the market. GOS and FOS are often what the industry currently uses, but these are simple structures which resist digestion and feed most microbes with little discrepancy. We are looking to bring more complex structures that can selectively feed different groups of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

“We developed a technique to break down larger molecules into smaller pieces and by sequencing the re-assembling we realised we were able to create something much more powerful.”

After founding the business one year ago, the team is now ready to make its work better known to the industry, start focusing their attention on specific health areas, and start looking for partners across the food, nutraceuticals and pharma spaces.

Industry-wide improvements

Joe Schmidt, Chief Business Officer and an experienced entrepreneur and life science executive, explains that the team wants to create their own products, as well as work with other companies to improve the efficacy of theirs.  

 “Cultural and lifestyle differences drive a wide variation of diets in humans.  Because the probiotics we consume are forced to feed on what we eat, such diversity can negatively impact the consistency of benefit from probiotic solutions.

“We think we can bring, not only stand-alone prebiotic products to support healthy balance, but also make other parties’ probiotics better by pairing it with one of our diverse structures to selectively improve the respective probiotic’s colonisation and metabolic output.”

Food and drink

Speaking about potential applications for the food and drink market, Amicucci explains that they also see an opportunities to increase the nutritional value of plant “milks” by applying their technology to break down the high fibre by-products and creating a value-added soluble fibre solutions that can be added back into the product.

“This could potentially increase the fibre in these products, as well as reduce the need for added sugars and gums, so it will also create a ‘cleaner’ label.”


He adds that, in order to add value to the pharmaceutical sector, BCD can potentially provide a solution to enhance the performance of live biotherapeutic products currently in the clinic.

 “For companies looking to cure and treat diseases modulated by the gut microbiome, we see the ability to advance these products by creating specific carbohydrates to give these bacteria the best shot at colonising in the gut.”

BCD is currently in currently in the final phases of closing seed financing for 9-12 months of operations, with an intense focus on developing a broad intellectual property portfolio and library of oligosaccharide pools for functional testing. They expect that commercialisation of products will likely be possible in two to three years, taking into account the regulation around novel structures. 

They also recently received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create functional oligosaccharides for human health and nutrition applications. The team will produce the glycan pools by running its patent-pending digestion process on a range of high fibre natural materials.

The glycans will be screened by BCD and other Gates Foundation collaborators in a range of microbiome, anti-inflammatory and immune modulation assays, to evaluate their potential to enhance nutrition and health.

Probiota 2020

The rapidly evolving universe of probiotics, prebiotics and the microbiome will be propelled into the new decade at the upcoming Probiota 2020​​ summit in Dublin on February 10-12.

From advances in microbiome research, to start-up game changers, key market stats, crucial clinical science and regulatory knowledge, attendance is a must-have for those in the prebiotic, probiotic and microbiome sectors. 

Will you be joining your peers in one of the world’s greatest cities?

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