A self-proclaimed recovering sugar addict made the winning pitch at the 2023 Ontario Agri Tech Pitch Competition, walking away with $10,000 in prize money for his precision fermentation start-up, Biofect Innovations.
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Why it matters: Governments around the world are changing how sugar is labelled and used in food products, so food and beverage manufacturers are looking for alternatives without having to sacrifice taste or other attributes.
The company is working to commercialize protein-based natural sweetener called Brazzein. It is found in the oubli berry that grows in West Africa, but Biofect isn’t planning to go into berry production. Instead, the four co-founders have developed a platform that lets them produce Brazzein using precision fermentation.
“I was 26, pre-diabetic, overweight and the doctor wanted to put me on statins. I needed to solve my health issue and what worked was removing sugar,” says CEO Ralph Christian Delos Santos, of what ultimately kindled his interest in working on a sugar substitute.
“Brazzein is unique because it is a protein and it’s 2,000 times sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way. Canada ranks number two in diabetes prevalence amongst its OECD peer countries, and Brazzein has the potential to solve Canada’s diabetes epidemic,” he says.
Biofect has developed proprietary microbes that they feed in a fermentation tank with low value industry byproducts like starch. The microbes turn that starch into Brazzein, which is then purified into a white powder that can be used as a substitute sugar ingredient in food and beverage applications.
The team has completed its proof of concept and is now working to scale up production and refine its product so it can fit into a wide range of product types and formulations.
In addition to serving as a sweetener, sugar is also used for texturizing, as a bulking substance and to provide mouth feel, so Biofect is working on projects with different partners to address those needs.
“Beverages are our main approach now. To get to confectionary, candy or cakes, you need texturizing abilities, so that’s a later market,” says Santos. “The underlying intellectual property is our platform, which we are developing too. Brazzein is a proof point for the platform; we can also produce other proteins like casein, for example.”
Biofect is partnering with three flavour houses interested in buying the product, with a long-term goal of being market-ready by 2026. The company’s next two immediate milestones are patenting their IP and securing “Generally Regarded As Safe” regulatory approval.
To that end, Biofect is conducting tests to prove the protein stemming from its fermenters is identical to what is produced by nature.
“It is such an honour to win this competition. To be recognized is validation that what we’re building is hitting a pain point and that lets us keep going,” Santos says.
“This is one of many steps for us to get to our destination, and we’ve been privileged with so many people interested in our work . It takes a village to build it.”
Biofect Innovations was one of five participants in the competition, which was held at the University of Guelph and sponsored by the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, RHA Partners, the 519 Growth Fund and AgExpert.
Food Security Structures Canada won the People’s Choice Award with its moveable, modular Agrotunnel concept to support year-round food production. According to co-founder Kim Parker, one Agrotunnel has the potential to produce the same yield of fruits, vegetables and herbs as six shipping container-based indoor farms, due in large part to its proprietary grow light system.
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Other competitors included Psigryph Inc., developer of Nanopect technology that improves the ability of medical, crop protection or nutrition products to be absorbed by plants, animals or people; Terra Optima Labs, which converts food waste into soil amendments; and VetsOn, a virtual healthcare platform for veterinarians to make large animal practices more effective.
Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, Deb Stark, former deputy minister at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs, noted the breadth of ag tech innovation at the event bodes well for the future of the sector.